The federal government has announced $9.2 million in funding to develop a First Nations water holding model, in partnership with Indigenous organisations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been calling for enduring water holding arrangements for more than a decade.
First Nations peoples hold rights to about 40 per cent of Australian land through native title, yet own and control less than 0.2 per cent of the surface water entitlements.
Native title recognises that Indigenous peoples have their own systems of law and customs by which they have rights to land and waters, and that these systems have endured beyond colonisation.
Under native title legislation there is no clear right to take or manage the water itself, other than small amounts for cultural purposes.
Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek said this lack of water has robbed Indigenous people of economic opportunities, particularly in rural Australia, and disrupted cultural practices.
She said the government will work with the Committee on Aboriginal Water Interests, the Coalition of Peaks, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and other stakeholders to develop a model for First Nations to own, access and manage water.
“Water runs through the heart of many First Nations,” Ms Plibersek said.
“And it’s central to First Nations development and economic self-determination, particularly in rural and remote Australia.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have told me that the current arrangements for water holding aren’t always appropriate for First Nations, who have their own cultural and economic needs and aspirations.
“It’s important we get this right. It’s a crucial step in reversing the legacy of Indigenous dispossession and under-representation in water ownership and decision-making.”
Committee on Aboriginal Water Interests co-chair Rene Woods said this was an opportunity to lead the world.
“And to develop water holding arrangements in partnership with First Nations peoples that meet the needs of today and can meet tomorrow’s ambitions,” he said.
“The Committee on Aboriginal Water Interests looks forward to providing advice to the government about the sort of arrangements that will best provide the economic, cultural, social, spiritual and environmental outcomes First Nations peoples want to achieve.”
The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said she and Ms Plibersek were committed to working with Indigenous people and organisations on water.
“As a government we have heard loud and clear that it is time to get on and deliver First Nations water access and ownership,” she said.
“I recognise that all progress towards commitments will need to be achieved in line with our commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.”
Committee co-chair Grant Rigney said establishing national water holding arrangements for First Nations was long overdue.
“Self-determination must be a key feature of any enduring water holding model,” he said.
Coalition of Peaks member Jamie Lowe said it was important to remember that all water once belonged to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“These waterways sustained our communities for millennia and we know how to best care for them,” he said.
“Greater ownership of water for our people will not only mean greater economic opportunities, but it will improve our health, education and wellbeing, as the cultural and social determinants of health are all interconnected.”