Aqua nullius no more? Happy NAIDOC week 2019

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NAIDOC Week (originally standing for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) is an annual time to recognise and celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year (7-14th July 2019) the theme is “Voice, Treaty, Truth” which are three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always wanted an enhanced role in decision-making in Australia’s democracy.

This is particularly apt given Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has just announced his intention to achieve constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people, via a referendum within three years.

For those in the water industry, NAIDOC Week is also an opportunity to recognise the issues and management practices of Aboriginal people in relation to Australia’s water sources. Specifically:

Indigenous water rights

The Native Title Act (1993) recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rights and interests to land and waters. Native title decisions have seen many Aboriginal communities regain control of their land, but control of water has been more difficult to achieve. Data indicates that Indigenous Australians control less than 0.1% of Australia’s water resources. In 2004, Australia’s state and federal governments agreed to the National Water Initiative (NWI), in which Indigenous water rights were explicitly recognised for the first time. The NWI stated that water plans would incorporate Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies wherever possible. While recognition of Indigenous cultural values and associated water requirements had progressed, the NWC found practical change was slow.

Access to safe water

Access to safe water is very sadly a serious issue faced by many Aboriginal people. Contaminated water caused alarming rates of disease in remote communities in Western Australia. Contamination of water is known to result from naturally occurring chemicals (arsenic, nitrates and uranium) as well as microbial contamination. It relates to proximity to sewage and animal waste, human induced chemical contamination from agriculture, pesticides and herbicides, as well as mining waste and PFAS contamination. It is a serious issue that needs addressing immediately as access to safe water is a core human right. Challenges are often around remote water treatment require a consideration and balance of capital output, efficacy, waste, and feasible ongoing management.

Aqua nullius no more?

A  new plan to enshrine Aboriginal water rights in law and practice has been released, which gives governments a way to overturn “aqua nullius” and demands Aboriginal people have more say in how water is allocated and managed across Australia.

The national cultural flows research project is the “unfinished business of national water reform,” Nari Nari man and chair of the Murray lower Darling river Indigenous nations (MLDRIN) Rene Woods said.

The project, released on Friday morning, has taken more than five years, and involved Aboriginal traditional owners, legal experts, water management agencies and scientists.

Some positive news

  • The Aboriginal Water Grants Program hopes to improve water outcomes for Aboriginal people by increasing the input of traditional knowledge from Indigenous owners. The program has been designed to support local research projects with traditional owners and Aboriginal Victorians to better understand Indigenous water values.
  • In 2017, a process of strategic renewal at Barwon Water (‘Strategy 2030’) identified an opportunity for deeper levels of engagement with Indigenous Australians, from the transactional and needs-based approaches of the past, to a more partnership inspired relationship of the future, by celebrating Aboriginal deep-time connections to country, adopting meaningful actions that advance the livelihood of modern Aboriginals, and developing a strategic mindset that strengthens Barwon Water’s connection to country and with Aboriginal people and culture into the future.
  • SA Water is working to overcome the challenges of supplying safe and reliable drinking water to some of its most remote customers. The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, in the far north-west corner of the state, are home to about 2300 people who live in communities spread across 103,000 square kilometres of arid land. SA Water has worked with nine of these communities since 2005, and took on the management of local water services in an additional four locations – Kanpi, Nyapari, Watinuma and Murputja – in late 2017.
  • Arup (Environmental Consultancy) have been working with the Lama Lama community on the Port Stewart River to solve the community’s water supply issues since 2015. The community hasn’t had safe drinking water for a decade. A submerged bore pump was designed to access water during wet and dry seasons. At the same time, an electricity-free, chemical-free filter was used on the pressure of the intake pumps.
  • $6.4 million Borroloola water treatment plant is designed to supply the residents of Borroloola with up to 3ML of drinking water per day. Raw water from local bores is aerated through a degassing tower to remove the majority of carbon dioxide before being by the addition of calcium carbonate through two calcite filters. The water is then disinfected by a new gas chlorination system and distributed through the network. The upgrade plant can provide reliable and safe water for the town for the next 30 years.

Who knows, maybe Australia will finally have its first Aboriginal Prime Minister in the near future?

Imagine Adam Briggs up against Trump (we can only dream)!