Griffith University researchers have found that 12 months on from Australia’s first study of Indigenous water rights holdings in the Murray Darling Basin, holdings have reduced by 24 megalitres/year.

This is a result of the sale of a license of moderate size, and it leaves Aboriginal organisations in control of just 0.17 per cent of the total water in the Basin, whilst groundwater remained unchanged in regards to First Nations control at 0.027 per cent as no new licenses were acquired in the last year.

Griffith University’s Professor Sue Jackson said the updated research raised “serious questions about the inequitable effect of water markets” believing that the results show “how vulnerable First Nations’ water holdings are to permanent loss in the country’s most valuable water market”.

According to Dr Lana Hartwig, this decreasing control comes despite “a commitment by all Australian Governments under the Closing the Gap policy to set a target to increase First Nations water holdings,” and is likely a result of Indigenous organisations feeling pressured to sell their “water rights to cover the costs of operating their organisations”.

“There has never been more attention given by policy makers or governments to the important issue of Indigenous water rights in the MDB, or nationally.”

This recent decline follows the trend of the last decade where in a separate study, the same team of academics found a 17 per cent loss in First Nations’ water rights between 2009 and 2018.

Professor Jackson called for urgent action of the causes of the issue, stating that governments need to “act on commitments to improve access to water for First Nations under national water policy, state water policy and law, as well as Closing the Gap”.

Such action Professor Jackson believes needs to be “a comprehensive approach to water rights”.

“The Federal Government should follow through on its 2018 commitment of $40 million to buy water for Aboriginal people in the Murray Darling Basin,” she said.

This commitment has seen “a long delay”.

The Professor further suggested reform to the fees State and Territory governments “charge Aboriginal organisations for water licences”.

“If these were removed it might make it easier for organisations to hold on to their rights and use water in line with local priorities.”

Previous research suggested that households within the jurisdictions of the Murray Darling Basin supported reallocating a small amount of water to First Nations, with the magnitude of support at 70 per cent. This same research found households would be “willing to pay $21.78 in a one-off levy.”

This figure was determined through a questionnaire in 2018 that identified public attitudes, and if all households in the area were to pay such a levy, the aggregate value would be $74.5 million, which is “almost double” that of the government commitment to Aboriginal nations in the basin.

Professor Jackson said the research team “plan to update the database every year to see if there are any changes in the volumes of water held by First Nations”, with a hope to benchmark the results against commitments under water policies and Closing the Gap targets.

By Aaron Bloch