A royal commission in South Australia has heard evidence from an Indigenous group who want to enshrine Aboriginal water rights in national law.
The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission was announced in November to investigate allegations that some upstream irrigators were stealing billions of litres of water purchased by taxpayers to preserve Australia’s inland rivers.
The investigation began in June and has been examining a vast swathe of issues affecting Australia’s main food-growing region.
The commission received a submission in Adelaide on Thursday from a group representing Traditional Owners along the river system who have stated a desire to overturn “aqua nullius”.
The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) said the inquiry represented an opportunity to air Indigenous concerns and present proposals to change legislation.
“The Water Act needs to be reformed to recognise and promote First Nations’ distinctive attachment to and authority relating to waters of the Murray Darling Basin,” said Rene Woods, the group’s chairman and Nari Nari man.
The royal commission has been closely examining the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan which is underpinned by the Water Act.
The Act does recognise environmental water flows and Indigenous groups have been lobbying for laws to be reformed to include the concept of cultural flows.
However, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says it's focusing on protecting jobs in irrigation-dependent communities.
The federal government stuck a bipartisan deal in May to ensure the Murray Darling Basin Plan remains intact.
The historic agreement also included an allocation of $40 million across the basin to support the acquisition of Aboriginal cultural and economic water entitlements.
Traditional Owners said it was a positive step but were unpleased about the decision to lower environmental targets that would have increased overall water flows throughout the river system.
A lawyer acting for MLDRIN argued that Australia was also not fulfilling obligations ratified under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and Convention on Wetlands.
“Australia’s Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fall far short of international standards of recognising Aboriginal people’s unique connections to waterways,” said Bruce Lindsay, from the Environmental Justice Australia law firm.
South Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission’s final report is due by February 2019.