The Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission has backed changes to the Water Act 2007 to recognise First Nations’ rights.

The commission identified major shortcomings in the way Australia’s water law implemented key aspects of international agreements and that a stronger legal platform was required for the role of Aboriginal people in managing Basin water resources.

“The absence in the Water Act and Basin Plan of any clear or express reference to the relevance of international obligations in the Biodiversity Convention to the role of Aboriginal people in the Basin’s biodiversity is striking,” Commissioner Bret Walker said.

“Both Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) urged that a human rights-based approach to water resource management is called for in the Water Act and Basin Plan scheme; if not as a legal imperative then as a moral one.”

 

MLDRIN welcomed the release of the report, and urged governments to heed the decisive recommendations for a stronger legal recognition of First Nations’ water rights.

“This comprehensive report sheds the light on major gaps, failings and omissions of the Basin Plan and associated water reform,” MLDRIN chair Mr Rene Woods said.

“Not least amongst these is the failure to recognise First Nations’ rights to protect, use and manage the water flowing through their country. This omission has had tragic consequences, as evidenced in the recent massive fish kills in NSW and the impacts on Traditional Owners,” she said.

MLDRIN said it looked forward to working with all Basin governments to act on the recommendations of the watershed report.

“First Nations knowledge and guidance is a critical part of the solution to the tragic situation in the Murray Darling Basin. New research tools, designed to measure Aboriginal water needs, must be considered as part of the best available science for establishing new SDLs. Indigenous leadership must be included at the highest levels of water governance,” Mr Woods said.

Chair of NSW Aboriginal Land Council Roy Ah-See said in a statement that “water is life” and natural and spiritual law surrounding the environment were “eternal principles.”

“No human-made law can overrule natural law. No human-made law can overrule spiritual law,” he said.

“You cannot overrule the rules of spirituality, and the rivers have spoken. It’s up to us to do something about it.”

“The Darling River is a result of violation of natural laws,” he said.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) met in Canberra recently to continue its extensive work program to roll out the Murray–Darling Basin Plan.

The Authority welcomed the Australian Government’s announcement of the $5 million Native Fish Management and Recovery Strategy, and commended the cooperative approach of the MDBA and state and Commonwealth parties to develop a way forward to improve monitoring and evaluation of the Basin’s native fish populations.

The Authority recommitted to providing full support to the review into fish deaths by the Independent Panel, led by Professor Rob Vertessy, appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources.

Federal Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud welcomed the news Professor Robert Vertessy had chosen five prominent water scientists to join him on an independent panel assessing the fish deaths in the Darling River.

Professor Vertessy, who will lead the panel, is a distinguished water scientist from the University of Melbourne and also former head of the Bureau of Meteorology and a former CSIRO scientist.

“Prof Vertessy has chosen his team independently,” Minister Littleproud said.

“All panel members are all highly-respected experts with experience in a range of fields, including water quality, fish ecology and river management.”

“The independent panel will work with government agencies, experts and local residents from the Lower Darling, including local Aboriginal elders. A genuine independent assessment takes time and will not be rushed,” he said.

Minister Littleproud said the panel will prepare a preliminary report and recommendations by 20 February this year, with a final report by 31 March 2019.

The panel will assess water management, events and conditions ahead of the fish deaths, and will identify the likely causes and ways to avoid further incidents.

Professor Vertessy will be joined by Professor Nick Bond, the Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems at LaTrobe University, Professor Fran Sheldon, Professor of Environment and Science at Griffith University, Associate Professor Simon Mitrovic from the University of Technology in Sydney, hydrologist Daren Barma, and freshwater fish ecologist Dr Lee Baumgartner from Charles Sturt University.

By Andrea Cantle