Indigenous leaders have presented an urgent demand for a more meaningful role in water management as the Darling River looks likely to cease flowing for the third time in 12 years. Meanwhile, an independent review of the Commonwealth Water Act has highlighted the importance of 'effective implementation' of requirements for Indigenous engagement in water management.
Across Australia, the call for Indigenous water rights is growing stronger. Last week, elders and activists from the upper Darling appealed for an urgent change to the way Indigenous communities are involved in the water management process. The Darling is in a dire state. Low flows on this important river impact on ecology and human health far downstream, jeopardizing fish breeding and forcing local towns, like Wilcannia, onto bore water and expensive bottled supplies.
Indigenous groups have highlighted two key issues: first, engagement with Traditional Owners is often tokenistic. This means that local Indigenous people's needs and aspirations are marginalised and water managers miss out on important traditional knowledge. Secondly, too much water is being removed from the continent's river systems.
These problems have become sadly clear in the heavily modified Murray-Darling Basin, but now Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory are facing similar problems. Huge volumes of water are being allocated to private users and business, with little to no consultation with local Indigenous communities.
In order to address this sad pattern of mismanagement, politicians have to heed the rights, aspirations and concerns of Indigenous people. Traditional Owners have the right to manage water resources on their country and a wealth of knowledge and information to contribute to sustainable management.
A recent independent review of the Commonwealth Water Act found that effective implementation of requirements for Indigenous consultation in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is essential to ensure a 'positive step forward' for Basin communities. State governments will have to start heeding this call. Returning water resources to Traditional Owners can help to address decades of disadvantage and a legacy of environmental degradation.