No water to spare? Depends who’s asking


By Maryanne Slattery


Last week, the Productivity Commission released its three-yearly assessment of the National Water Initiative. Of special relevance is the Initiative’s reliance on the water market to manage our water and rivers.

The Productivity Commission says that the establishment of a water market demonstrates “significant progress” in the water reforms. The report praises the commodification of water that has created “material benefits” for those with water entitlements. It’s allowed growth in irrigated agriculture and given farmers the freedom to take out loans or retire debt.

The Productivity Commission acknowledges that Aboriginal people have been very clear – they want greater access to and control over water. The Commission suggests that the National Water Initiative be modernised to “recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s reverence and cultural responsibility for rivers and groundwater systems, and their desire to participate in all significant water-related processes and decisions.” That’s a worthy sentiment.

However, the Commission then argues that granting Aboriginal people water rights “would require fundamental change to current property rights regimes and the way water is currently managed”. Such a move “would have profound flow-on impacts on other entitlement holders, communities and individuals”.

Profound flow-on impacts on other entitlement holders certainly sounds like something to avoid. However, this is what will happen if the NSW Government licenses floodplain harvesting in Northern NSW. It is in the process of doing just that.

The Productivity Commission acknowledges the significant cumulative impacts that unlicensed floodplain harvesting has on the integrity of water entitlements. The response? Hurry up and license them.

So, there’s no water to spare when it comes to Aboriginal people, but plenty when it comes to new floodplain harvesting licences. Aboriginal people can give their knowledge, attend more meetings, and make more submissions, but that’s about it.

If governments are genuine about including Aboriginal people in decisions about water management, they could start with the submissions to the current NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into floodplain harvesting. The Dharriwaa Elders Group from Walgett states unequivocally that it “does not agree with, and does not want, any floodplain harvesting” on the grounds that the Elders “don’t believe that floodplain harvesting can be sustainable. Floodplain harvesting is, by definition, taking water from the ecosystems of the floodplains. It is not spare, unused or wasted water”.

Similar points were made by every Aboriginal group that made submissions. These included the Murray-Lower Darling Indigenous Nations, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the Euahlayi Peoples Republic, as well as individuals.

Governments say they’re willing to include Aboriginal people in water management. They can start by amending their water ownership bias and listening to Aboriginal people about floodplain harvesting.

Maryanne Slattery is the Director of Slattery & Johnson. Slattery & Johnson is a water consulting firm that conducts independent research and policy analysis.

This article was first published on 11 September 2021.

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