Inaugural Indigenous Water Forum to put water rights in the spotlight

The Australian National University (ANU) will host a forum on Monday that brings together academic and community experts to discuss Indigenous water rights and economic self-determination.

The first of its kind, the Inaugural Indigenous Water Forum will provide space for conversation around the links between water rights for Indigenous peoples and economic prosperity, financial security and community independence.

Organised by ANU Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Virginia Marshall, the Forum will feature prominent figures across Indigenous communities including:

  • Goreng Kabi Elder, Eugene Bargo
  • Kimberley Land Council Chair, Anthony Watson
  • Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations activist, Cheryl Buchanan.

Dr Marshall herself will also feature among the impressive line-up of speakers.

The event will first be an open public forum where community and academics can contribute to the conversation, with a closed workshop taking place after.

“The big reason why we did [this] was because there needs to be more national and local awareness of Indigenous water and what that means,” Dr Marshall said.

“The second thing was to get a group of experts together in their field across [ANU] and also experts from community on understanding water and what we need to achieve to get recognition in Australia.”


Lack of recognition

“[Indigenous water rights are] important because Aboriginal people want to be self-determining on homelands,” Dr Marshall said.

Dr Marshall said First Nations Peoples are lacking that recognition after the Howard Government split land from water, creating water property rights in 2004.

With only three clauses in the National Water Initiative to manage water resources across Australia in relation to Native Title and water planning that falls back on passive language, Dr Marshall said these clauses rely predominantly on the discretionary power of its enforcers.

“There’s nothing in that blueprint recognises Aboriginal livelihoods and that we can make a living from Native Title or the Aboriginal Lands Trust lands,” Dr Marshall said.

“We also need to be recognised … we need to be able to talk about what’s happening in community and we need to have our rights and entitlements discussed more broadly across Australia.”

Dr Marshall was unwavering on her position that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities should expect the ability to self-determine on country.

Citing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Dr Marshall said Indigenous Australians should not have to move off country to find prosperous economic opportunities.

“The UN is certainly very loud and clear on that. We have a range of issues that are unresolved in Australia which that connect to water rights.”

The postdoctoral fellow also condemned the Federal Government’s choice not to incorporate UNDRIP legislation into the Water Act 2007.


Being loud and clear

Making connections to water rights and the catastrophic mass-deaths evident in the Murray Darling Basin, Dr Marshall said forums like this won’t prevent these kinds of events.

Instead, the postdoctoral fellow said the key to preventing such devastating events is looking at the mismanagement of water.

Dr Marshall said other factors to consider include the “wealth of information” from the Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission and the non-appearance of the Murray Darling Basin Authority to provide evidence of dysfunction in Australia’s water systems.

“Everybody … who really understands this space really is crying out saying we need this to be addressed,” Dr Marshall said.

“It’s really important that we have this discussion but also we need to press forward with getting people to hear.”

Although Dr Marshall is aware forums like these aren’t the key to direct, immediate change, she said making issues apparent to policymakers and community will help drive change forward.

“I’m really making sure that every day, and the time that I have here is spent engaging and being very loud and clear that these issues need to be heard,” Dr Marshall said.

“We need to really understand that message about Indigenous knowledge [and] Indigenous science.”

Dr Marshall spoke with admiration of her fellow Forum speakers, saying they are incredible leaders in their communities.

“They’ve been really putting their heart and soul into these issues,” Dr Marshall said.

“We need to keep on being very loud and clear … [this Forum] is a way forward. This is all about solutions.”


Start of the journey

For Dr Marshall, the excitement of the Forum lies in seeing the connections and conversations being fostered between field-expert academics and community members and experts.

“[Academics] are really dedicating their time to provide community with any guidance that they seek and [the Forum is] also for them to listen to community and then understand how they feel … and how they would see commercial water and what that would look like in a drying continent here in Australia,” Dr Marshall said.

“That conversation is really rich. We hope to really expand those conversations out from this [Forum].”

After the forum has wrapped up, a public report for community will be released that is easily understandable and not “high-tech,” as Dr Marshall said many conference reports often are.

Dr Marshall said she hopes to build further conversations and actions to really create positive change for Indigenous communities seeking water rights and economic opportunity.

The journey is just beginning for Dr Marshall, who said this Forum won’t be the last.

The Inaugural Indigenous Water Forum takes place at ANU on Monday October 14 from 1.30pm to 4.00pm AEDT.

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By Hannah Cross

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