August 3, 2012


Bold statement on Indigenous access to water resources barely causes a ripple

My water-nerd friend called it “gutsy”. Last month, Australia's National Water Commission (NWC) released this statement calling for water allocation plans to include reserves of water for Indigenous economic development.

The NWC's “Position Statement: Indigenous Access to Water Resources” reflects policy from the advisory group, First People's Water Engagement Council. The statement describes actions needed to improve Indigenous access to water in several areas: water for culture, water for economic development, leadership and governance, water planning/ management and drinking water security in remote communities.

Readers of this blog might be particularly interested in the first recommendation: that water management practices discern cultural water values independently of environmental water values. Environmental values alone can be somewhat utilitarian. This move would further legitimise cultural values (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) as water management considerations.
Likely to be most controversial are the recommendations to set aside water for Indigenous economic development. In Australia, Indigenous land rights are recognised through the 1993 Native Title Act. However, rights to water are uncoupled from land rights. In general, recognition of Native Title is not accompanied by any substantial water rights. One way to get around the limitations of the legislation is by allocating Strategic Indigenous Reserves (SIRs) of water in water management plans. Examples exist in the Northern Territory and Queensland. For the other States, taking on the NWC's recommendations would be a major change to business-as-usual. It would also be a challenge; the statement doesn't detail how the new water entitlements might be allocated.

The mainstream media's limited attention for this statement is astonishing. Other water issues, like the messy saga of the Murray-Darling Basin, are taking up most of the spotlight. If you look at the Australian Government's page on water policy and programs the word “Indigenous” doesn't even appear. The lack of attention could reflect general public disinterest in the abstract, jargon rich world of water allocation and resource management or a complacency about Indigenous rights. Another factor is that these recommendations from the NWC are not binding. The NWC is an advisory body.

Whatever the reason, water resources and Indigenous rights are both of national importance. The effect of SIR's (or similar) is to acknowledge that prior to colonisation, Australia's Indigenous population “owned” the water resources. SIRs could change- in fact, are changing- the way Australia sees itself as a nation. They are changing some fundamental assumptions of water resource management. Broader public interest may be ignited sometime in the future if legislative changes are proposed, especially in the more densely populated southern states Until then, the NWC's quiet statement contributes to the slow movement of Indigenous water rights.

Kat Taylor
More reading.. you might like this informative pdf on water rights from Australian National University.

1 comment:

  1. Good explanation of the statement and the recommendation. Rights to water resources are important for economic development. Such a great blog!