Watershed on Indigenous rights needed in Victoria

Will Mooney

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/120

In February, the Victorian government launched the draft of a new water act at public forums across the state. This new legislation represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the management of Victoria's rivers and water resources. While public debates about water are often framed as a contest between the rights or irrigators and the needs of the environment, there is a crucial factor that this new draft legislation has all-but ignored: the water rights of Victoria's First Peoples.

Fresh water is vital to the continuity of Indigenous cultures in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Victoria's rivers, floodplains, lakes and streams have provided vital economic and spiritual nourishment to diverse Aboriginal nations for at least 30,000 years. Water is the lifeblood of Country. Almost 30% of known Aboriginal cultural heritage places in Victoria exist within 100 metres of a waterway.[1] Traditionally, many Aboriginal people lived alongside waterways and harnessed water resources to develop permanent settlements and sophisticated social and economic systems, such as the elaborate eel farms established by the Gundijtmara people at Lake Condah, in Western Victoria.

Today, river-dependent ecosystems provide important food resources, medicinal plants and materials vital for ongoing cultural practices. Waterways connect communities to sacred sites and traditional knowledge. They also sustain totem species, the living, breathing heart of Aboriginal culture. Yet, over-extraction of water for consumptive use and the degradation of river habitats mean that many water-dependent values are in danger. Many Indigenous communities see their river country in a sad state of decline. As waterways suffer, environmental degradation erodes the rich heritage of some of the oldest surviving cultures on Earth.

Water resources are worth big bucks. The estimated gross value of the Victorian water market in 2011–12 was $519 million.[2] Aboriginal people have not benefited fairly from the extraction and commercialisation of this resource. Appropriation of land and water resources, discrimination and the forced removal of Indigenous people off country have resulted in serious, ongoing disadvantage. In the Murray Darling Basin, which includes large swathes of Northern Victoria, Indigenous people own less than 1% of water, despite comprising nearly 4% of the population.[3]

Indigenous people want to build enterprises and employment in their communities, but in many cases, they cannot compete with irrigators and agri-businesses to acquire water on the open market. Yet, with an annual growth rate of 5.8%,[4] Indigenous communities in Victoria are growing three times faster than the overall population.[5] This trend is playing out in rural areas across south-eastern Australia. Addressing past inequality and supporting sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous people is integral to the socioeconomic viability of rural Victoria.

Providing water for community development and Indigenous commercial enterprises would create an income stream, helping Indigenous organisations to become self-sufficient and contributing to the overall development and wellbeing of rural areas.

Aboriginal nations across Victoria have articulated the need for water to sustain their cultural traditions and build a viable economic base for their communities. Yet, the new draft water act includes no meaningful changes to meet the needs and aspirations of Traditional Owners and Aboriginal people. Despite a decade of research and advocacy by Indigenous groups, scientists and academics, and sound policy advice from the National Water Commission, the current Victorian Government has left Indigenous rights conspicuously off the water reform agenda.

The expert advisory committee that was appointed by Water Minister Peter Walsh to draft the new legislation could have drawn on a range of innovative approaches already being piloted in other states. Indigenous Water Access Licenses, and Strategic Indigenous Reserves have been government policy in NSW, Queensland and the NT. The National Water Commission, an independent statutory authority that advises COAG on national water issues, has recommended governments consider the creation of a fund to acquire appropriate water rights for Aboriginal people.[6]

In New South Wales, the Water Management Act 2000 mandates inclusion of Indigenous representatives in decision-making bodies and a dedicated Aboriginal Water Initiative advocates for allocations to meet Indigenous needs in Water Sharing Plans. Why don't Victoria's Traditional Owners enjoy the same consideration?

It is high time that the values and aspirations of the First Peoples of Victoria were afforded recognition in the ongoing public conversation about water management. By failing to account for Indigenous water rights in its reformed water act, the Victorian government is missing a crucial opportunity to address past inequality and contribute to sustainable futures for Aboriginal people.


[1] Government of Victoria, Department of Environment and Primary Industries, 2013, Victorian Waterway Management Strategy. p. 70.

[2] Australian Government, National Water Commission, 2012, ‘Section 4.2 – Victoria’, Australian Water Markets Report 2011-2012. p. 105.


[3] Taylor, J. and Biddle, N. 2004. Indigenous people in the Murray-Darling

Basin: a statistical profile. Australian National University, Centre for

Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, discussion paper no. 264/2004264/2004.

[4] Government of Victoria, 2013, Victorian Aboriginal Economic Strategy 2013-2020. p. 12.

[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2013, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3101.0/

[6] Australian Government, National Water Commission, 2012. Position Statement: Indigenous Access to Water Resources. p. 2.

Will Mooney is Community Campaigner with the Barmah-Millewa Collective of Friends of the Earth Melbourne.