Broken First Nations' water ownership model needs repair

16 May 2023

Why Australia needs to urgently improve First Nations peoples' access, control and say over water to improve their health, wellbeing and economic outcomes will be the overriding theme of a major two-day roundtable at The Australian National University (ANU) starting today.

A joint initiative of the ANU First Nations Portfolio, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) and the National Native Title Council (NNTC), the roundtable will also be attended by the Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek.

Professor Peter Yu AM, Vice-President First Nations at ANU, said recognising First Nations peoples' rights to water was vital to addressing historical injustices of exclusion and denial, and to advancing reconciliation in Australia.

"Water is inseparable from our social, cultural and economic worldview," he said. "But at the moment, when it comes to water rights, current policies, law and practices reflect an era of terra nullius when First Nations' traditional ownership and cultural connections were not recognised in Australian law.

"While First Nations Australians have access to more than 50 per cent of the Australian landmass through native title and land rights, we have access to less than one per cent of water allocations.

"We are the Traditional Owners and managers of these waterways. But a vital resource that we managed for millennia has been taken from us. And as independent agencies such as the Productivity Commission have indicated, our voices and views on how to better care for and sustainably use water are largely ignored.

"This is undermining self-determination and Australia's commitment to the United Nations Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"This gathering, bringing First Nations leaders and practitioners, researchers and policymakers together, is an opportunity to develop meaningful reform in public policy and institutional practice concerning First Nations peoples' relationship to water."

NNTC Chief Executive Officer Jamie Lowe said: "Real water justice for First Nations peoples means shared governance in decision-making around responsible water allocation, which transcends jurisdictional red tape and equitably meets the diverse needs and interests for this precious resource.

"Appropriate arrangements for First Nations' ownership and management of water can be achieved through the Commonwealth, state and territory governments working in genuine partnership with First Nations people on designing the new arrangements that are required."

ILSC Chief Executive Officer Dr Joe Morrison said: "ILSC is proud to be partnering with ANU and the National Native Title Council to bring together like-minded individuals and organisations to hold important conversations around water rights for First Nations peoples.

"First Nations' ownership or control over water access entitlements is estimated at less than one per cent of the total volume across Australia. This statistic speaks to the barriers of Indigenous access to commercial water rights by separating land and water titles.

"First Nations people have never separated land and water, even saltwater, and that's why it's vital to explore ways to improve Indigenous access to natural resources.

"Given the functions of the ILSC, and that we have heard from many Indigenous people around the country through our National Indigenous Land and Sea Strategy consultations, we believe that a revised Indigenous-led national approach to rights in freshwater is a national urgency."

The National First Nations' Water Roundtable takes place at ANU 16 to 17 May.

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