Alarming inequity of Aboriginal water rights in NSW

In the first quantification of Aboriginal water rights in NSW, Griffith University researchers gave found Aboriginal people have rights to only a tiny fraction of the available water.

In a paper published in Land Use Policy, the water entitlements of Aboriginal organisations in the NSW portion of the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) were found to be only 0.2% of all available surface water, in a region where Aboriginal people comprise almost 10% of the total population.

“To improve this inequitable situation requires addressing the deep legacies of Australia’s colonial water history,” Dr Lana Hartwig, Australian Rivers Institute.

“Water management and regulation in the MDB has radically changed over the past 30 years with water trading and recovery for the environment in the MDB now the world’s biggest water market, worth billions of dollars.”

Until now, little has been known about the water holdings of Aboriginal organisations and whether Aboriginal people have been sharing in the wealth generated by new systems of water rights and trading.

“Aboriginal people need access to water to manage their lands and benefit from its use in the future,” Dr Hartwig said. “Our research maps Aboriginal water access in New South Wales over more than two centuries and quantifies current rates of Aboriginal water holdings.”

“It also examines the historic and contemporary factors that continue to limit Aboriginal peoples’ access to water and their opportunities to benefit from its use.”

The research found 25 Aboriginal organisations hold water entitlements to a total 12.1 gigalitres of water across ten catchments in the NSW portion of the MDB (see figure below).

Aboriginal organizations’ standardized water holdings per catchment in the NSW portion of the MDB (as at October 2018). Catchments are defined as Surface Water Sustainable Diversion Limit Resource Units.

“This amount is a mere 0.2% of all the available surface water in the NSW portion of the MDB. The results show that Aboriginal organisations hold a tiny portion of the total water supporting economic and social development in the Basin,” Dr Hartwig said.

“Alarmingly, we also found that the amount of water held by Aboriginal organisations has decreased by 17% over the past 10 years. There are many reasons for this, including forced permanent sales from the liquidation of Aboriginal enterprises.

“The MDB’s water market in 2015-16 was valued at A$16.5 billion. We estimate Aboriginal holdings across the NSW portion of the MDB were valued at only 0.1% of that amount, A$16.5 million.

“This small amount is unevenly distributed across the state, with ownership higher in the south than the north,” Dr Hartwig added, “despite the Aboriginal population being considerably larger in the north.”

The researchers further discovered that the water holdings of Aboriginal organisations tended to be relatively insecure, meaning they were not assured of getting a water allocation every year.

“In this research we also identified key moments when governments denied Aboriginal people water rights and by extension, the benefits that flow from water access,” said Professor Sue Jackson, also from the Australian Rivers Institute.

“In the colonial era, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of land and so could not obtain licences to use water. Then 200 years after colonisation, land restitution processes to redress Indigenous peoples for colonial acts of dispossession further intentionally restricted what land and water licences Aboriginal people could claim.

“These results show conclusively that Australia’s system of water governance is inequitable and unjust — it has excluded Indigenous people from accessing water and from participating in the water economy,” Professor Jackson said.

“There is an urgent need to reform national water policy and laws to address this historical denial of water rights and stem future water losses”.