Water reforms needed: NLC calls on NT government to bring water management system into 21st century

Date: Apr 26, 2022

Publication Type: Blog

Subject: Newspaper

The NLC has called on the NT government to bring its water management system into the 21st century and in line with its commitments to Aboriginal Territorians.

Water is precious. Often we don’t appreciate it until our tap water turns brown, bores dry up, rivers stop running or fish start dying.

Last week the Northern Land Council responded to the Northern Territory Government’s Strategic Water Plan Directions Paper – and we called for substantial reform.

The NT is at a crossroads.

We either continue on the established path doing things in the same way again and again, but hoping for a different outcome. Or we can recognise our water management system in the NT is broken.

It needs to change - our land and waters, and every living thing that relies on them, are at risk.

We need to be unafraid to make a change.

What does this new path look like? Firstly, policies, laws and decision making processes must include us - Aboriginal people.

In the words of the late musician Dr Yunupingu, words are easy, words are cheap

Wardaman Rangers and Traditional Owners measure water flow on the Flora River.

We hear from government that they want to work with Aboriginal people but we don’t see this in practice. For too long bureaucrats and politicians have been endorsing policies and laws that fail to recognise that meaningful engagement and shared decision making are necessary parts of being accountable.

When our knowledge of country and western science are combined, the benefits can be immense.

We’ve seen with reduced hot bushfires in the NT. Could  a similar approach for water reap immeasurable benefits?

We have proven we can work together. Where we work together is where you’ll find healthy country - the least polluted water ways and flood plains.

Right across the NT, Aboriginal land and sea rangers are managing biodiversity and biosecurity for the benefit of all Territorians.

In our response to the Government, we  propose a future where water licensing and management decisions are not made by one person – the NT’s Water Controller - who must juggle the responsibilities that come with being the head of a mega-government department and the discretionary power to make water licensing decisions.

Instead, decisions about water licensing and management should be made by an independent water commission - with trust, transparency and accountability at the forefront.

The NT's precious waterways, such as Bitter Springs, need to be protected.

Instead of the disconnected approach we have today - where land and water are planned for and managed separately - decisions about country should be made as a whole. Government must empower communities to take a leading role.

A series of management bodies should be established across the NT. These bodies would be tasked with the planning and coordination of land, water and biodiversity across their catchment.

This way, Aboriginal people would have a voice in how country is managed.  

We want a future where all Territorians have access to a safe and sustainable water supply, including people living remotely.

Not only will this help keep our children healthy, but it will allow our old people to stay in their community to receive medical treatment.

Instead of receiving dialysis treatment while being isolated in town, there must be good enough water available out bush to make the dialysis machines work.

We now have an opportunity to set up a system that works for all Territorians – a system where Aboriginal landowner voices are heard and their caring for country practices are recognised; a system that leads the country.

If we don’t choose the right path, we will face a future that no Territorian wants to see.

The Northern Land Council’s submission on the NT Strategic Water Plan Directions Paper is available at nlc.org.au.