Aqua Nullius and a New Pathway Forward in the Murray Darling Basin

A pathway for improved water management and First Nations water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Successful integration of Indigenous management of Victoria’s waterways with western methods will lead to a more holistic understanding of water as a cultural, as well as an economical, social, and environmental lifeblood, argues new research.

Margooya Lagoon

Published today in the leading international journal Science, Cultural Water and Indigenous Water Science in the Murray-Darling Basin shows the necessity of understanding of water through the lens of Indigenous laws and water science, and the difficulty of doing so within Australia’s competitive water-resource management environment.

The research argues water laws and water science in the Murray-Darling Basin are built on a flawed assumption of ‘Aqua Nullius’, a colonial understanding of water as owned by no one, which has continued to limit opportunities to address a lack of First Nations water rights and contributed to unsustainable water management.

Nestled in a curve created by the ancient passage of Millu, the Murray River, lies Margooya Lagoon. Sheltering under the canopy of grandmother trees, the lagoon is a place of connection for the Tati Tati peoples, who belong to this part of Country. But river regulation has drastically reduced floodplain flows that connected the lagoon to the river.


Australia’s rivers and freshwater ecosystems are in trouble – a result of the false claim that water belonged to no one when the British invaded Australia

By Dr Erin O’Donnell and Melissa Kennedy, University of Melbourne

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The paper, led by Melbourne Law School researcher Dr Erin O’Donnell, alongside Ms Melissa Kennedy (University of Melbourne), and colleagues Associate Professor Dustin Garrick (University of Waterloo), Associate Professor Avril Horne (University of Melbourne) and Mr Rene Woods (The Nature Conservancy), proposes a new Cultural Water Paradigm to overcome barriers to cultural water integration across contested waterways.

Ms Kennedy, Tati Tati Traditional Owner and research fellow at University of Melbourne, said a Cultural Water Paradigm could embed a new way of valuing water within management practices that prioritised relationships with water, sustainability, and reversing the legacies of aqua nullius.

“First Nations water science and values continue to be overlooked and undervalued in places like the Murray-Darling Basin where issues of water scarcity, overextraction, and mismanagement have deteriorated the health of Basin waterways and communities.”

Dr O’Donnell said the “unfounded, unjustified and erroneous” assumptions of aqua nullius continued to undermine the legitimacy and sustainability of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“A Cultural Water Paradigm shows how to address this flaw at the heart of Australia’s settler-state water science and policy by presenting a holistic framework for care and management of water where First Nations are decision-makers. Upcoming reviews of the Basin Plan and federal Water Act provide an essential opportunity to prioritise a Cultural Water Paradigm in partnership with Traditional Owners and First Nations.”

Our work explores the Cultural Water Paradigm as a holistic way of caring for and managing water

Dr O’Donnell said this research built on decades of leadership and advocacy by First Nations in the Murray-Darling Basin, including the 2007 Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ Echuca Declaration that defined cultural flows in the basin; as well successive 2018 and 2021 First Nations’-led reports.

“While there is growing interest in partnerships between water managers and First Nations across the Murray-Darling Basin, this has yet to translate into meaningful recognition of First Nation water rights, water laws, and water science,” she said.

“We hope this paper can provide further guidance to settler-state governments on the value of a Cultural Water Paradigm, and how to work towards achieving it.”

Media enquiries:

Dr Erin O’Donnell | | 0400 290 503

Ms Melissa Kennedy | | 0431888139