Traditional Owners could achieve water justice in the Murray-Darling Basin for the first time, if government delivers on cultural flows

MEDIA RELEASE 

‘Cultural flows’ – water entitlements and rights for First Nations communities – could be achieved for the first time in the Murray-Darling Basin if government delivers on a First Nations led proposal. 

Following the completion of the federally-funded National Cultural Flows Research Project, Tati Tati Traditional Owners are seeking allocation and delivery of an initial gigalitre of water at Margooya Lagoon, a culturally significant wetland near Robinvale in Victoria. 

In addition, the community leaders have proposed a legal and policy package that will enable Traditional Owners authority over the management of that water on their Country, along with a cultural flows management plan for the site that aims to restore healthy flows to Country and culture. 

Tati Tati’s project plans come in the wake of the Victorian government’s announcement that it will allocate 2 billion litres of ‘additional’ water savings from the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District Connection project to irrigators, with Traditional Owners missing out once again. The plans also come in the wake of growing speculation that $40 million dollars, promised to First Nations by the former water minister David Littleproud in 2018 to buy water, could be spent on initiatives other than water ownership, such as employment programs. 

To date, no water from the Murray-Darling River system has been allocated to Traditional Owner groups in Victoria, despite extensive advocacy and consultation with government for over two decades. 

Margooya Lagoon, or Tol Tol, is a culturally significant wetland where Tati Tati ancestors were known to fish and camp. The area would, under natural conditions, flood annually at this time of year but has been almost completely dry for several years, adversely impacting the health of the wetland ecosystem, and subsequently the culture of the Tati Tati community. 

Tati Tati have undertaken Aboriginal Waterway Assessments (AWAs) at the site – a tool which helps Traditional Owners assess the cultural health of their Country and set priorities for water delivery. At Margooya, AWAs have informed their Cultural Flows Management Plan – a biodiversity and cultural plan for the site that includes water, heritage and land management activities. 

If the model is successful in its aims to use legal and policy tools to restore health to Country and culture under Tati Tati leadership and authority, it would provide a template for other First Nations communities seeking water justice across these over-extracted river systems. 

Brendan Kennedy, Tati Tati Elder said: 

“Murray River people are water people – our culture relies on healthy water flowing across Country naturally. The health of Margooya Lagoon has a direct impact and influence on the health of our people emotionally, spiritually, physically, and culturally. When there’s no water there, it has a devastating effect on our people.  

“For too long, government has been allocating billions of litres of water to irrigators at the expense of healthy Country and culture for First Nations people. We do need farms and we do need food but we need a balance too. We need to work in accordance with the natural environment and the availability of water – something our people have been doing for more than 65,000 years. 

“The lack of consultation with Traditional Owners in northern Victoria about water allocations in general has been abysmal. The recent allocation of 2 billion litres of additional water savings to irrigators was a real kick in the guts for Tati Tati and other First Nations Basin communities seeking water justice.  

“First Nations river communities must be afforded our inherent right to water and the management of it. Through the attainment and continuation of cultural flows, we aspire to achieve sovereign control of water management on Country to uphold our responsibilities of caring for Country. 

“This is an opportunity for government to prove that they are committed to more than just lip-service and research funding when it comes to water justice for Aboriginal people. We ask that they deliver a cultural flows water allocation urgently, in accordance with the plan we have developed, so that our people and Country can be well again.” 

Grant Rigney, Ngarrindjeri man and Chair of MLDRIN said: 

“This would be the first time the cultural flows concept has been rolled out in practice and is a critical milestone in achieving water justice for Indigenous Nations in the Murray-Darling Basin. 

“Just as ‘environmental flows’ are needed to sustain the ecological values of rivers, cultural flows are needed to support the cultural traditions and community development needs of First Nations. 

“Establishing a cultural flows model at Margooya Lagoon will provide a template for other First Nations groups seeking water justice and create a ripple effect along the Murray-Darling Basin.” 

Bruce Lindsay, Senior Lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia said: 

“Colonisation and decades of mismanagement and overextraction have left this critical river system in a poor state and had an immense effect on Aboriginal people’s rights to healthy Country and culture. It’s time this enormous injustice was addressed and delivering cultural flows is a part that. 

“‘Settler’ law and policy is fragmented and complex and does not conform easily to Aboriginal lore and custom. One of the purposes of the cultural flows model is to produce a clearer reconciliation between the two. There are legal and policy mechanisms available to deliver cultural flows – but they need to be put into practice. 

“Government has funded the cultural flows research project which has been a really important investment in ideas and thinking. But ultimately at the end of the day, government needs to go one step further and provide the resources and pathways to implement cultural flows on Country – that means access to water and Traditional Owner authority over the landscape. 

“If Tati Tati can develop a cultural flows model at Margooya Lagoon, then there’s an enormous opportunity for governments to step up and achieve real gains for Aboriginal people and their control and authority over water. That means reversing the “aqua nullius” First Nations communities face – being shut out of the control or having any meaningful authority over the water on their Country in the Murray-Darling Basin.” 

Background 

In 2007, MLDRIN created the Echuca Declaration, a ground-breaking statement that outlined First Nations’ rights and aspirations in water management. A key part of the Echuca Declaration was a definition of cultural flows. MLDRIN defined cultural flows as a way of translating Indigenous people’s water rights, needs and aspirations into the language of modern water management. 

In the Declaration, cultural flows are described as “water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, natural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Nations.”  

Between 2014 and 2018, the federal government funded a National Cultural Flows Research Project. MLDRIN is a key partner in the project that aims to secure a future where Indigenous water allocations are embedded within Australia’s water planning and management regimes, delivering cultural, spiritual, social, environmental and economic benefit to communities in the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond. In June 2018, the findings of this key research project were released. 

MLDRIN has already received some success in their efforts to have Australian governments recognise cultural flows – the Murray Darling Basin Plan requires Basin governments to take account of First Nations’ views about cultural flows. 

Media contact: Livia Cullen, Environmental Justice Australia, (03) 8341 3104, media@envirojustice.org.au 

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