Aboriginal water rights expert, Dr Virginia Marshall, has welcomed the findings and recommendations of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin which were released on 29 January 2019, and called on the government to promptly act on its recommendations.
Dr Marshall was an expert called for the Royal Commission, and welcomed the way the Commission dealt with her evidence in the Indigenous engagement chapter, as well as the evidence provided to the Commission by senior Aboriginal witnesses and other experts.
“Anyone reading Chapter 11 (Aboriginal Engagement) of the Royal Commission Report will be left in no doubt that the over-exploitation of Basin water resources has had a damaging effect on the social and cultural fabric and the lives of Aboriginal people living in the Basin,” said Dr Marshall.
“I agree with the Commissioner that these impacts, particularly the severe impacts suffered by the Barkandji people downstream of Bourke, must be urgently remedied.”
Dr Marshall welcomed the Commissioner’s finding that Aboriginal interests in the Basin’s water resources have been sidelined and marginalised in contravention of Australia’s international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention, and the Commissioner’s call for the Basin States to make proper provision for Aboriginal people to play a more central role in water resource management.
She also welcomed the Commissioner’s recognition that the Basin’s waterscape is intrinsic to Aboriginal cultural identity and well-being, a topic Dr Marshall detailed extensively in her book Overturning Aqua nullius: Securing Aboriginal water rights, which the Commissioner described as a "seminal work".
“The Commissioner’s recommendation that Section 21 of the Water Act should be amended to include an express provision for Aboriginal interests in water resources is particularly welcome,” Dr Marshall said.
“As is his recommendations for Basin states to amend their water resource laws to remove impediments which restrict native title rights and interests in water resources, both commercial and non-commercial. This is vital if Aboriginal people are to contribute more fully to the restoration and sustainable use of the Basin’s water resources and biodiversity.”
“We have a traditional knowledge on water resource management that extends back thousands of years,” Dr Marshall said.
"Aboriginal land and water resource management knowledge has been a critical missing factor in the Basin’s current management arrangements and the degradation of the river system today is a legacy of our exclusion from an active role in the Basin’s management arrangements."
In similar vein the Commissioner concluded that all inhabitants of, and stakeholders in, the Basin will share the benefit if the depth of insight, knowledge and experience of Aboriginal people is embraced, and Aboriginal interests are acknowledged and progressed.
Chapter 17 of the Royal Commission Report analysed the governance framework in the Murray Darling Basin finding it to be defective "insofar as it fails to provide Aboriginal people with a central decision-making role in all matters concerning the Basin". The Commissioner noted the December 2018 decision of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council "that there should be a standing Aboriginal member appointed to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority", but went somewhat further by recommending that "the Water Act should be amended in order to mandate at least two Aboriginal representatives on the MDBA Board".
The Commissioner was also highly critical of the government’s abolition of the National Water Commission (NWC) in 2015, referring to submissions by the many individuals, organizations, scientists and former high-level members of government who lamented its demise and called for its reinstatement – a step the Commissioner supports. The Commissioner cited "persuasive evidence that the NWC provided a necessary check and balance, and oversight, that is now lacking in the implementation of the Basin Plan".
Dr Marshall said her research also indicated that there was a critical need for an expert body like the NWC to provide independent oversight of the implementation of the Basin Plan, including the progress being made to advance the rights and interests of Aboriginal people in the Basin, and across all state jurisdictions.
To read the full report visit the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission website.
First published on ANU College of Asia and the Pacific's School of Regulation and Global Governance website. Image: Dwayne Madden/Flickr.