Cultural Water for Cultural Economies

How to address the ongoing exclusion of Aboriginal interests in water in Victoria


Project Overview

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.

Key Questions

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?

Project Outcomes

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

    Jaithamathang Nation

    Latji Latji Mumthelang Aboriginal Corporation

    Ngintait Nation

    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.

Project Report

Cultural Water for Cultural Economies (final report), launched at the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations full gathering, 12 March 2021

Our Research Team

Publications

In the News

Conference Presentation

  • 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).