The Murray Darling Basin (MDB) spans a million square kilometers and crosses several state borders. It's by far Australia's largest water source, and its footprint contains 40 percent of the nation's farms as well as 70 percent of its irrigated agriculture.
For the many indigenous communities dotting its sprawl, the basin also carries deep cultural significance. However, a series of changes in law have led to the locking out of indigenous leaders from decisions relating to the basin's use and future. As a result, they're claiming, huge areas of their land have become uninhabitable.
In some regards, the lockout isn't new. Indigenous Australians have been left out of the basin's management for years, despite laws designed to ensure their involvement. To rectify this, a First Nations alliance of 46 indigenous groups has called for new water authorities to include them in water talks. They argue policies put in place to ensure their involvement are being ignored.
Indigenous groups allege this lack of consultation has resulted in the degradation of waterways on their land. They claim large-scale irrigation and the draining of water to fill dams and weirs has left communities around the Menindee Lakes and Stradbroke Island in crisis. This has forced thousands to move off of land with significant cultural value.
Jenny Whyman is a Paakintji woman and a representative on the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations Committee. She talked to VICE about her experience with ground water mining by the New South Wales state Government destroying Menindee Lakes. "The local indigenous community of Sunset Strip were never consulted," she commented. "Instead, they were each offered $200,000 to move out of their homes." The lake is an indigenous burial site, and further water plans were going to drill through them. "We're not happy about it. How would they like if we dug up their relatives?" she said.
Darren Perry, an Ngintait man and chairman of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), explained to VICE that Australian water policy specifies that indigenous groups must be consulted about how Australia's water is managed. "This simply isn't happening," he said. "We've had absolutely no involvement at all in Victoria—water authorities have made no movements to engage with indigenous communities."
Much of the breakdown comes from complications following the separation of land and water titles in the 1994 Council of Australian Government's Water Reform Framework. The reforms allowed for the control of land and water as two separate entities, with individual licenses for each. But this occurred at the same time Australia was processing native title claims, meaning that when indigenous groups retrieved land ownership, they discovered that water wasn't part of the deal.
Despite this, the Native Title Act 1993, the 2006 National Water Initiative (NWI), and an independent review in November all state water management must include indigenous interests. But Sue Jackson, a principal research fellow at Melbourne's Griffith University and an expert in this area says the breakdown could lie in vague terminology.
"In the National Water Initiative, phrases saying indigenous interests will be consulted 'wherever possible' obscures meaning. It allows governments and water planners to decide when and if they apply those clauses or not," she told VICE. There also exists no target or review in the policies, and Jackson highlighted this means no one is ensuring that engagement with indigenous communities actually happens.
In an attempting to revive Australia's diminishing river system, the Murray Darling Basin Authority is implementing a seven-year Basin Plan. It aims to achieve a balance between environmental, economic, and social interests—including those of indigenous communities—by 2019. But while this is a positive step, Darren Perry notes that the MDBA only has influence over how the water is managed, it doesn't own water licenses. These are owned by state governments, land irrigators, and private landowners whom the MDMA only assist.
Darren acknowledges that indigenous communities could be perceived as challenging the state governments and private companies who own the water as a way to assert control and influence. This, he said, is far from the case. "We just need an opportunity to build our own economy, and water is one of the few things we have," he said. "We want to go further into aquaculture, or alternative farming with water-friendly crops—rather than watch people try and grow rice and cotton in the driest continent on Earth."
Darren told VICE that ultimately a healthier partnership was all indigenous groups is needed. "Most of all we just care for this country, and every living thing of that country," he said. "Our responsibility is to care for the land, it's what makes us who we are."
Image by Flickr user Susan