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“Innovative leadership” is needed for Indigenous water needs

Finding ways to deliver on Indigenous water needs is an essential component of the National Water Initiative, and one researcher says there is an opportunity for Australian governments to show “innovative leadership” in policy moving forward.

Presenting at the recent WAter – A State of Extremes Conference on options for strategic Indigenous water reserves for Western Australia, ANU Crawford Policy School PhD scholar Katherine Taylor said establishing a comprehensive Aboriginal water policy for WA is long overdue.

“Strategic Indigenous Reserves could be one part of a broader policy. The purpose of reserving water in an allocation plan is to avoid the situation where the resource is over-allocated and no water remains available for Indigenous people in that region, which has happened in some areas,” she said.

“Under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous peoples have inherent rights to water. This includes the right to maintain their spiritual relationship with water but also to ‘use, develop and control’ resources like water.”

Taylor said that while strategic Indigenous reserves was a good fit for the existing water allocation planning framework, it was not the only option.

“Indigenous policy groups have been advocating for a strategic Indigenous water reserves in northern Australia for some time. There are a few models; one of them is the new Northern Territory framework,” she said.

“It’s important to know that strategic Indigenous water reserves is one option of many for recognising Indigenous water rights and the custodial responsibilities of traditional owners. It’s up to states and territories to work with Indigenous peoples to figure out how to incorporate their specific objectives into water management.”

While the Northern Territory has a framework in place for allocating Indigenous water reserves, Taylor said it is crucial for the WA Government to work with local Aboriginal people to find the best path forward.

“The WA Government does not have a policy on ‘Aboriginal Water*’ nor Indigenous water allocations. The NT framework gives an opportunity to consider whether a similar policy framework might be applied in WA,” she said.

“In WA there is a fundamental need to look at how Aboriginal people are involved in decision making about water planning and management.”

Taylor added that the need to establish Indigenous water policy is a “huge opportunity” for the WA Government to establish leadership in this field.

“Aboriginal expertise in water is enormous. This is a great opportunity for WA to do something really innovative here. In the past, WA has embraced technological innovations; now is the chance to embrace innovation around cultural water governance and management,” Taylor said.

“I am a researcher, I’m a non-Aboriginal person, so I am by no means speaking for Aboriginal people. But I do work in the water sector, and am working in partnership with Aboriginal organisations, and this is a very important issue to address.

“Strategic Indigenous reserves are a good option, but they are a narrow option, which is why it needs to be considered as one part of something bigger.”

*Aboriginal Water is a term proposed by the First People’s Water Engagement Council.