Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Are we finally seeing action on Aboriginal water justice?



There’s a famous image from 1975 of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring red earth into the hands of Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, as a symbolic gesture of returning land back to the Gurindji people. It’s a powerful image and represents an important turning point in Australian land rights policy — a point when the federal government finally started to acknowledge that this nation state has been built on stolen land and that it was past time for restitution. But something that really strikes me about this image on a symbolic level, particularly as an academic that has spent their whole career focused on water, is just how dry the earth is.

Main image: New flow in the Barka Darling river (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

During this period, the Whitlam government established the Woodward Commission to run an inquiry into Aboriginal land rights, and this ultimately led to the passage of the Aboriginal Lands Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 by the Fraser government. After this came similar legislation in the States, including the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983. And then came the High Court decision in Mabo and others v Queensland (No. 2), which overturned the fictional application of the principle of terra nullius (‘land belonging to no one’) to the Australian continent, and led to the creation of the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993.

Anyone familiar with Native Title will tell you that the defects in the scheme, particularly after the Native Title Amendment Act 1998 (introduced by the Howard government in the aftermath of the Wik decision), are multiple. These defects include the excessively onerous processes for both proving a claim and for administering the title even after it has been awarded, as well as the way that the process can lead to competition and conflict — these, and other defects, have been detailed elsewhere. What I want to focus on here is the dry earth — or, more specifically, the absence of water.

In the Murray-Darling Basin, for example, Aboriginal people currently own less that 1 per cent of water rights, despite making up 9.3 per cent of the population of this area. Recent research has documented some of the historical causes of this ongoing absence of water justice. These causes start, of course, with the original dispossession of land from Aboriginal people and the grating of this land and associated water rights to farmers and other settlers. When the land rights agenda emerged towards the end of the 20th century, deliberate decisions were made to restrict access mostly to land without water rights. Native Title also largely failed to deliver on its promise of recognising and returning customary rights to inland water.

Finally, from 2009 to 2018, researchers found that ‘the water rights held by Aboriginal people in the NSW portion of the Murray-Darling Basin shrunk by at least 17.2 per cent’. They attributed this decline to multiple factors, but emphasised the ‘forced permanent water (and land) sales arising from the liquidation of Aboriginal enterprises’ as being the most significant.

Similar statistics and policy patterns are evident across Australia, and it has led to an incredible injustice under which Aboriginal peoples are denied access to their own waters and, therefore, to the opportunities that would flow from that water. These opportunities include the economic benefits that would flow from agriculture, tourism and other water-reliant enterprises, but they also include the opportunity to exercise self-determination and to fulfil the obligations to care for Country in accordance with First Law.


'The idea is to move on from merely consulting with Traditional Owners and incorporating Indigenous cultural values into management practices, by returning water rights to Aboriginal people so that they are empowered to give effect to their responsibilities to care for Country and to benefit economically in the process.'


In response to this issue, the Indigenous Nations represented within Murray Lower Darling Rivers issued the Echuca Declaration in 2007. The Declaration recognises and reaffirms the sovereignty of each of the Indigenous Nations over its lands and waters, and that ‘[w]ater is a living being and should be treated accordingly. Many of our ancestral beings are created by and live in water.’ It goes on to define the meaning of, and to set out a mechanism for delivering, cultural flow outcomes.

In 2015-16, the Victorian government responded to the Echuca Declaration and the long history of Indigenous leadership in persistently fighting for water justice by launching the 2016 ‘Water for Victoria’ plan, which was developed through a partnership process with traditional owners. Chapter 6 of the plan contains a ‘roadmap to deliver water for Aboriginal cultural, spiritual and economic values.’

Now, a Melbourne University research project is helping to document this process and to help close the loop between recognising Indigenous cultural water values and delivering actual control over water. The idea is to move on from merely consulting with Traditional Owners and incorporating Indigenous cultural values into management practices, by returning water rights to Aboriginal people so that they are empowered to give effect to their responsibilities to care for Country and to benefit economically in the process. Indeed, as lead researcher, Dr Erin O’Donnell, explains, it makes no sense to separate cultural responsibilities from economic benefits, these concepts are completely interrelated since economic activities are always carried out according to cultural protocols — or, as a Traditional Owner stated during a workshop, ‘We need cultural water for our cultural economies.’

This project has already resulted in the first ever water hand back to Traditional Owners by the Victorian government — in November 2020, the state returned two billion litres of water to traditional owners (the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation). Hopefully, this represents the beginning of an important shift in the story of water justice in Australia, but clearly, we still have a long way to go.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: New flow in the Barka Darling river (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, Aboriginal, water justice, land rights, water rights



submit a comment

Existing comments

Cristy, asking for federal govt cooperation on water is still stretching the relationships between the states. Water needs to be diverted from the Northern rivers in Qld down to the Darling. Distance 2134 km along the Mitchell Highway. If the wasted water that flows to sea during the wet were harnessed, (Burdekin 3 times the Murray), The Ross (Tsv) and the Mitchell rivers (which Wiki says has the largest volume discharge in Qld), there'd be plenty of water for the Murray and collateral benefits for hydro electric power along a concrete channel adjacent to the Mitchell Highway. Vic and NSW have 58.6% of Australia's population and 13.4% of Australia's land. Aside from the Indigenous Water rights issue, if we can spend 5 bn on Snowy 2 to divert water to the Murrumbidgee to double Snowy's capacity, why couldnt we spend 9bn to build the channel to the Northern rivers? The premier of NSW had a great idea to build new artificial lakes to protect NSW against bushfires but to date nothing has been implemented. Last year when the Ross flooded, 2100 cubic metres per second went over the spillway out to sea. If this idea was realized a series of lakes in NSW with inflow locks and hydro turbines could be given over to the traditional owners to own and manage in perpetuity.

Francis Armstrong | 15 April 2021  

Having recently travelled through outback NSW, and in particular visiting the Menindee Lakes area, I was struck by the reality of Australia (apart from Antarctica) being the driest continent on earth. 70 per cent of our nation receives so little rainfall annually it is classed as arid or semi-arid. That is the stark reality with which people of the outback live. Water is a precious commodity and Aboriginal people living (and thriving) in the desert knew this. 21st century Australia is a different scenario, with a much greater population, crops being grown which are not suited to an arid continent, greediness by those in authority. Change has occurred and we must make life-affirming decisions.

Pam | 15 April 2021  

I agree Aboriginal peoples need a Treaty, a Voice to Parliamentand with all the concepts of the Uluru declaration. I do not see that any group ought ‘own’ water rights. Not “9.3 % of the population of the area, nor LBTQI people, nor women, nor the Rice Board, nor.... But I do think we need an independent Board to allocate water so all Australians and Earth have suitable access as needed.

Gerard Bennett | 15 April 2021  

Cristy, I recall travelling and camping alongside the Darling up to Pooncarie, continuing on to Menindee, Wilcannia and Tibooburra, in 1964. The old, natural channels into the lakes system was still mainly in place, whilst the local warned us about camping in the river beds: a wall of water might suddenly appear! The remarkable earlier anthropologist and writer, Ion Idriess, wrote The Silver City as part memoir, part history. Although this was published in 1956,much of it recalls his adolescence in Broken Hill, and his knowledge and travels west of the Darling and the Darling Anabranch in the earlier years of the 20th century. Of particular interest may be his hand drawn maps, number 4 and 5, of the Menindee Lake System and the Chain of Lakes, including the Anabranch lakes, and his description of the natural renewal of these rivers and lakes, in his closing pages, also mentioning the Cooper, Georgina and Diamantina rivers of the Queensland Channel Country. The water system as known by all aboriginal clans, along their 'highways', 120 years ago, unconstrained by later imposed European boundaries . A history well worth perusing again? I would be pleased to gift/post my copy to you!

Jacqueline Macnaughtan | 01 May 2021  

Similar Articles

Polls and trolls

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 22 April 2021

It is axiomatic that all intelligent people consider polls on political intentions to be unreliable. That no doubt says something about the mental acuity of those of us who duly glance at the news poll every month or so. The breakdown of the figures of this and similar polls, however, was interesting. It showed that support for the Prime Minister had declined substantially among women, but had remained steady or increased among men.


Racism in families belies simple reconciliation

  • Celeste Liddle
  • 23 April 2021

Due to the impacts of colonisation which have led to everything from loving intermarriage to acts of sexual violence, most Aboriginal people have non-Indigenous relations. Most of these people have, at some time or another, experienced racism within their extended family.