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Study finds Indigenous water market inequality rising

Groundbreaking research by researchers at Griffith University has found that Indigenous people’s share of Australian water rights is miniscule – and in our largest water market, only getting smaller.

The study looked at water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin, the world’s largest water market, valued at $16 billion. The value of water held by Aboriginal organisations was $16.5 million, or just 0.1% of the Basin’s value.

Across 10 catchments in the New South Wales (NSW) portion of the Basin, Aboriginal people, who make up nearly 10% of the area’s population, collectively hold just 12.1 GL of water — only 0.2% of the total available surface water. 

The study’s authors also highlighted the insecurity of these Indigenous water holdings, with a 17% decrease in water allocations for Aboriginal people over the past decade “indicative of a new wave of dispossession”.

To counteract this rising inequality, the report’s authors said that water titling in Australia requires a “revolution” that “reconnects water law and policy to the social justice agenda of land restitution” and offers greater opportunities to traditional custodians to care for their water and share more equitably in the benefits of its use.

Study co-author Professor Sue Jackson said Indigenous people were being excluded from accessing water and from participating in the water economy.

“These results show conclusively that Australia’s system of water governance is inequitable and unjust,” she said.

The study was also critical of the effect of Native Title and specific-purpose license mechanisms for water, which the authors say has “so far offered no meaningful means” of redistributing water use rights.

“Continued separate and inadequate treatment of land and water rights may undermine the numerous Indigenous political, cultural and socio-economic goals held by Aboriginal peoples in the state of NSW,” the researchers said.