Fenner water expert welcomes Royal Commission findings

19 February 2019

Aboriginal water rights expert at the ANU Fenner School, Dr Virginia Marshall, has welcomed the findings and recommendations of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin and called for the prompt implementation of its recommendations.

As one of the expert witnesses to the Royal Commission, Dr Marshall 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 from the Basin and other experts.

“Anyone reading Chapter 11 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” she said. “I agree with the Commissioner that these impacts, particularly the severe impacts suffered by the Barkandji people downstream of Bourke, must be urgently remedied”.

“I welcome the Commissioner’s recognition that the Basin’s waterscape is intrinsic to Aboriginal cultural identity and well-being and also his 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 Ramsar Convention” Dr Marshall said.

Dr Marshall highlighted the Commissioner’s recommendation that the Basin States make proper provision for Aboriginal people to play a more central role in water resource management by amending their water resource laws to remove impediments which restrict native title rights and interests in water resources, both commercial and non-commercial. She also highlighted his recommendation that Section 21 of the Water Act be amended to include an express provision for Aboriginal interests in water resources.

“Such legislative amendments are vital if Aboriginal people are to contribute more fully to the restoration and sustainable use of the Basin’s water resources and biodiversity” she said. “We have a traditional knowledge on water resource management that extends back thousands of years. This 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’, she said.

Dr Marshall recent book Overturning Aqua nullius contains a detailed analysis of the failings of the Murray Darling Basin Plan and the Commonwealth Water Act as regards Aboriginal water rights and interests as well as chapters on Aboriginal water rights and health, human rights, water policy, law, and ontology. The Murray Darling Basin Royal Commissioner described her book as a ‘seminal work’.