Indigenous access to water resources

June 2012

Access to water resources for cultural and economic purposes can make a significant contribution to the aspirations and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Until recently this has been largely overlooked in our water planning and management decisions. The National Water Initiative (NWI) recognises Indigenous people as legitimate stakeholders in water planning and management, and acknowledges the need to identify Indigenous water values and water requirements in water plans.

Indigenous Australians have managed their lands and waters sustainably for thousands of generations. Through their spiritual, cultural and customary connections to the landscape, they have acquired a deep knowledge and understanding of Australia’s water systems. Incorporating this knowledge into Australia’s water management approaches represents an opportunity for all governments to recognise Indigenous water issues and improve the sustainable management of our water systems.

In its 2011 Biennial Assessment, the National Water Commission found that although most jurisdictions had improved their consultation with Indigenous communities in water planning and management, they had failed to develop effective strategies for incorporating Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives in water plans as was envisaged under the NWI.

Since 2006, the Commission has invested in 16 projects to improve our knowledge and understanding of the social and economic aspirations of Indigenous Australians that are related to water. In 2010, the Commission oversaw the formation of the First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council (FPWEC), to provide the Commission with policy advice on Indigenous water issues. Following the FPWEC’s submission to the 2011 Biennial Assessment, more comprehensive advice was delivered to the Commission on 30 May 2012. Together, these statements have helped to refine the Commission’s position on Indigenous access to water resources in Australia.

Priorities for improved Indigenous access to water resources

The Commission encourages all Australian governments to pursue actions to improve Indigenous Australians' access to water resources.

1. Progress Indigenous access to water including:

a) Water for Culture: Cultural and environmental values and their water requirements should be determined independently, but integrated for management purposes where possible. When managed, from planning to delivery, in partnership with Indigenous people, environmental water can efficiently address most Indigenous cultural water requirements. Specific cultural water requirements, and their relative priority, can only be determined by local Indigenous people.

Indigenous Australians should therefore be involved in decisions on how cultural and environmental water is used. This can be facilitated by the inclusion of cultural objectives in environmental watering operational plans.

b) Water for Economic Development: Allocation of water entitlements to Indigenous Australians to facilitate economic development should be explicitly considered as a strategy for contributing to the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap agenda.

Access to commercial water entitlements can create opportunities for Indigenous Australians in diverse areas such as aquaculture, nature-based tourism, or intensive horticulture. Water entitlements can improve prosperity, create jobs and business opportunities, improve health outcomes, and help achieve financial security and independence.

All governments should implement approaches to provide water for Indigenous economic development, so that mechanisms exist to support Indigenous enterprises and related business opportunities. Mechanisms may need to vary depending on the extent of development in a water system. The Commission suggests that in water systems that are fully allocated the creation of a fund to acquire appropriate water rights should be considered. In systems not fully allocated alternative approaches such as Strategic Indigenous Reserves could be set aside in water planning processes.

The Commission is encouraged by the significant efforts in the Northern Territory and Queensland to provide specific water allocations to Indigenous peoples in the form of Strategic Indigenous Reserves (SIRs), and supports efforts to expand this approach.

c) Leadership and Governance: Leadership bodies, such as the First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council and regional groups, constitute important forums for the development of advice to governments and in particular, for the development and implementation of a coherent national approach across jurisdictions. The Commission encourages the Australian Government to continue to support independent Indigenous water policy advice and leadership at a national level.

In partnership with Indigenous groups, governments need to implement effective, transparent and accountable governance structures for the management of Indigenous cultural and economic water.

2. Water Planning: While most states and territories have improved their approaches to include Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives in water plans since the commencement of the NWI in 2004, these efforts have been patchy. The Commission calls for greater effort to build capacity and knowledge in both Indigenous communities and in government water planning and management agencies. This is essential to improve the inclusion of Indigenous values and interests in water and strategies to maintain them, and so realise Indigenous social, cultural and economic aspirations. This includes:

  • providing culturally appropriate resources and programs to build capacity in Indigenous communities
  • implementing leading practice strategies for Indigenous consultation, engagement and participation within government water planning and management activities
  • developing culturally appropriate methods to identify and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into water planning and management activities
  • developing techniques to better quantify the water requirements of cultural values and identify how this can be achieved through water planning and management processes

Indigenous community capacity to participate in water planning and management could, in part, be achieved by building on existing resources, for example by expanding the Indigenous community ranger network. In New South Wales, the Office of Water’s Aboriginal Water Initiative illustrates how an enhanced capacity in both Indigenous communities and in government water planning and management agencies can be achieved to better realise Indigenous social, cultural and economic aspirations in water planning and management.

3. Remote community drinking water security: A crucial part of the Australian Governments’ Closing the Gap agenda aims to improve the health outcomes of Indigenous communities by addressing drinking water quality and sanitation. This is a significant challenge, given that drinking water quality in many small remote Indigenous communities often does not meet Australian Drinking Water Quality Guidelines. The Commission considers that institutional support for these Indigenous communities to improve water security, through tools such as the Community Water Planner, should be considered as a contribution under the Closing the Gap agenda.

The Commission thanks the FPWEC for their dedication and efforts in bringing forward a national position from Indigenous Australians on water issues. We urge all governments to have regard to the voice of Indigenous Australians as articulated in that advice in advancing Indigenous Australians’ access to water resources for their social, cultural and economic aspirarations

Documents for download

Indigenous access to water resources (PDF 326KB)

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