First Nations have been largely left out of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, the royal commission into the management of the river system has found.
This is in spite of calls from Aboriginal groups to include them in planning, as well as Australia’s obligations under international law to recognise Indigenous interests in biological resources.
Meaningful consultation with First Nations is important not only to ensure their rights are respected, but to take advantage of their extensive knowledge of the local environment, argues Commissioner Bret Walker in the report published Thursday.
“The overwhelming evidence of the basin’s traditional owners is that its waterscape is intrinsic to their cultural identity,” he says.
“They have deep, valuable cultural knowledge about the behaviour of its ecosystems that should be employed centrally in the co-operative federal scheme established by the Water Act for its restoration and management. Key evidence from representative witnesses is that, not only is a central role their right and responsibility, it is essential to the well-being of their people.”
Yet Aboriginal groups described having their interests ignored in water management planning processes. The approach is often, as one witness put it: “we are going to put it at the bottom of the pile and we will come back to it at a later stage”.
“Opportunities to develop a coherent, constructive means by which Aboriginal people in the basin can contribute more fully to the restoration and sustainable use of the basin’s water resource and biodiversity are still being missed,” Walker says.
Perhaps this is because there is a “striking” absence of any mention in the Water Act or Murray-Darling Basin Plan of Australia’s international legal obligations to provide Aboriginal people a role in biodiversity management.
“A stronger legal platform for the role of Aboriginal people in managing basin water resources is required,” he concludes.
Walker recommends legislation requiring stronger consultation and “a legislated recognition and rationale for Aboriginal involvement in water resource management”.
The report includes discussion of cultural flows, an idea that has gained ground in the past couple of decades.
To quote the 2010 Echuca Declaration made by a group of Aboriginal representatives, “cultural flows are water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous nations.”
The commission looked at two case studies in which such ideas had been implemented, where Indigenous knowledge has been combined with contemporary science and environmental management to revive damaged riverine ecosystems, noting the landscape had been transformed.
Ngarrindjeri man Grant Rigney explained to the royal commission the cultural obligations underpinning his relationship to the land and water:
“We want to reset these biodiversities and the ecologies in our country. We want to see our fish spawning as they once were, our animals coming back down to drink. Fresh quality water out of the Coorong, not this super saline stuff that we’re living in today’s environment. It’s slowly dying. You can smell the impact of what’s happening in the Coorong and people in the city don’t get to see that. They live within their four walls and not seeing what degradation is happening to country. What happens to country happens to you.”