ANU expert calls for Indigenous water rights

4 June 2018

Indigenous water rights expert Dr Virginia Marshall has issued a plea for the public to get behind her push for improved water rights for Indigenous people.

Dr Marshall, who is the Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow at ANU shared by the Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) and the Fenner School of Environment and Society, delivered her plea as part of the 2018 ANU Reconciliation Week public lecture, where she outlined water as being one of a variety of inequalities still being faced by Indigenous Australians.

"Existing Australian water policy is failing Indigenous Australians," Dr Marshall said.

When national water reforms were introduced in 2004, Indigenous Australians were excluded.

"The national water reforms had a huge impact on Indigenous people, extending and further embedding their marginalisation from a crucial natural resource.

"Indigenous communities throughout remote and regional Australia continue to suffer poor water quality and inadequate water infrastructure which impacts their health and quality of life."

Dr Marshall said the dry Australian continent, with its highly variable rainfall, has meant that the control of water has underpinned wealth generation.

"Since Indigenous Australians in general are the poorest, most disadvantaged people in Australia, blocking the economic means to buy water and when native title of water cannot be traced, opportunities for Indigenous Australians to participate in the water market are extremely limited," she said.

"I argue that there is a compelling case to incorporate a reserved water right for Indigenous peoples outside of consumptive pool, to provide economic certainly for Indigenous peoples."

Securing Indigenous water rights is vital to addressing broader Indigenous disadvantage including closing the gap in health and wealth status, Dr Marshall said.

Achieving this meant more than signing treaties and including wording in formal documents, she said.

"I believe that incorporating the Indigenous water rights in the national water policy framework will not only give legal certainty to Indigenous water reforms and help build Indigenous cultural economies, it has enormous potential for flow-on benefits to the wider rural and regional communities.

During her address, Dr Marshall said more also needed to be done to improve the enrolments of Indigenous people at university and to cut Australia's drastically high incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is 20 times higher than non-Indigenous people.

But much of that can't be achieved without improving access to basic amenities, including water, first.

"My plea to you, is to put your energy behind the Indigenous water rights struggle. The cause is just and the time is right. Indigenous communities around Australia will welcome your support and history will acknowledge your contribution."