Cultural Water for Cultural Economies
How to address the ongoing exclusion of Aboriginal interests in water in Victoria
The Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project is a partnership between the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and University of Melbourne, as well as representatives from 20 Traditional Owner organisations and First Nations across Victoria. This project is an important step towards water justice for Aboriginal people, who currently own less than 1% of water rights in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Lack of access to water deprives Aboriginal people of opportunities to exercise self-determination, care for Country, and generate wealth from agricultural production.
In 2016, as part of a policy developed in partnership with Traditional Owner representatives, the Victorian state government committed $5 million to create the ‘Roadmap for Aboriginal Access to Water for Economic Development’ (see Action 6.3 Water for Victoria Plan). Developing the Roadmap is a collaboration between the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (Victoria), MLDRIN, and the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations (FVTOCs). The Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project is one of three streams of work funded by this commitment.
As part of the Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project, representatives from 20 Traditional Owners and First Nations were resourced to attend over 40 workshops and meetings from December 2018 to March 2021. Workshops and ‘hands on’ exercises, including a series of regional water market training workshops, were an important part of the project and have been developed in collaboration with the participants. First Nations and Traditional Owners hold the knowledge, stories, custodial obligations and cultural knowledge that have always ensured the health of waterways and river Country, and the project depended on their willingness to share their expertise with the research team.
The Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project is designed to identify specific law and policy pathways to increase water access for Traditional Owners and First Nations across Victoria, and to support their use of this water for economic development in accordance with their laws and cultural protocols.
In doing so, the Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project builds on the National Cultural Flows Research Project (2018), which included work by CREEL researchers Lee Godden and Rebecca Nelson. Although the Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project was based in Victoria, it also has implications for other states and territories across Australia, where Aboriginal ownership of water is similarly low.
In partnership with MLDRIN and the participating Traditional Owners and First Nations, the project has developed answers to the following key questions:
- How can Traditional Owners access water?
- How can water be acquired or transferred to Traditional Owner organisations?
- How can Traditional Owners engage in water trade and benefit from water markets?
- What are the appropriate governance frameworks for Traditional Owners to hold and manage water?
The Cultural Water for Cultural Economies project demonstrated the importance of ensuring that water for economic development is not seen as separate to water for cultural values. The project has identified four main pathways to increase water access for Traditional Owners and First Nations in Victoria:
- Increasing use of existing rights to water, such as the s8A right. At present, none of the eligible Traditional Owners are using this right to access water, indicating that it is not fit for purpose and requires reform.
- Unallocated water. Although many parts of Victoria are fully or over-allocated, there are substantial volumes of water that is considered available for use but currently unallocated, particularly across southern Victoria. Following this pathway led to Victoria’s first ever water hand back to Traditional Owners (the GunaiKurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation) in November 2020.
- Treated, fit-for-purpose recycled water. Recycled water can be used to substitute for existing water extractions from rivers (which then enables this water to be transferred to Traditional Owners), or the rights to use the recycled water can be transferred directly to the Traditional Owners. This is not an optimal solution, but both options are of interest in some cases.
- Water reallocation via purchase or other agreement. In northern Victoria, the only pathway for substantive surface water access for Aboriginal people is water reallocation. This can be achieved via the water market, and the Commonwealth Government has committed $40 million to acquire water for Aboriginal people in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations
Will Mooney, CEO
Lauren Chester, Program Coordinator
Grant Rigney, Acting Chair MLDRIN Board
Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations
Dr Kumuda Simpson
Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning
Aboriginal Water Unit
Traditional Owners and First Nations representatives
We also acknowledge the expertise of representatives from all participating Traditional Owners and First Nations:
Barapa Barapa Nation
Barapa Wamba Water for Country Steering Committee
Barengi Gadjin Land Council
Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation
DELWP Aboriginal Water Officers Network
Dalka Warra Mittung Aboriginal Corporation
Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation
First People of the Millewa-Mallee Aboriginal Corporation
Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation
Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation
Latji Latji Mumthelang Aboriginal Corporation
Tati Tati Wadi Wadi Nations
Taungurung Land and Waters Council
Wadi Wadi Land and Water Indigenous Corporation
Wamba Wamba Traditional Owners
Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation
Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation
We recognise that participation by First Nations and Traditional Owners in this project should not be taken as implying that any First Nation or Traditional Owner has approved of or authorised the settler-colonial water regime that has been imposed on their Country.
Cultural Water for Cultural Economies (final report), launched at the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations full gathering, 12 March 2021
Our Research Team
- Dr Erin O’Donnell, Melbourne Law School
- Professor Lee Godden, Melbourne Law School
- Dr Katie O’Bryan, Monash University
- Erin O'Donnell, Lee Godden, Katie O'Bryan, Will Mooney, Lauren Chester and Grant Rigney, 'Returning Water Rights to Aboriginal People'. Pursuit, 6 April 2021
- Troy McDonald and Erin O’Donnell, ‘Victoria just gave 2 billion litres of water back to Indigenous people. Here’s what that means for the rest of Australia’. The Conversation, 30 November 2020
In the News
- Erin O'Donnell quoted in 'Traditional owners say missing out on rare opportunity to access water rights is a step backwards'. ABC News, 25 May 2021
- Erin O'Donnell quoted in 'First Nations slam ‘secretive’ Victorian government water grant', The Age, 25 May 2021
- Sarah Marinos, 'Melbourne's Real-World Impact on Climate Change'. Pursuit, 18 March 2021
- E O’Donnell, L Chester, G Rigney, W Mooney, L Godden, K O’Bryan, Cultural Water for Cultural Economies AIATSIS Summit (31 May-4 June 2021, Adelaide)
- E O’Donnell, L Chester, G Rigney, W Mooney, L Godden, K O’Bryan, Cultural Water for Cultural Economies Frontiers in Environmental Law conference (25-26 February 2021, University of SA, Adelaide)
Project Funding and ethics
Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, AUD$300,000
The University of Melbourne Humanities Law and Social Sciences Ethics Committee approved the project ‘Water Access for Aboriginal Economic Development in Victoria’ (ID: 1954101.1).