Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations

Aboriginal Water Rights

MLDRIN’s core work involves advancing our members’ rights to protect, manage and own water resources on their traditional Country. First Nations have inherent rights to use and manage waterways, in order to sustain cultural traditions and build sustainable livelihoods for our communities. These water rights have been articulated by MLDRIN through the concept of cultural flows. These rights are recognised in international agreements and protocols, as well as in Australian domestic laws and policies. The Australian Government is a signatory to The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP recognises Indigenous peoples’ rights to own, use, develop and control their traditional lands, territories and resources. It also recognises our right to maintain and strengthen a distinctive spiritual relationship with our lands and waters.

Australia has also ratified the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which requires governments to respect and preserve the knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous communities relating to sustainable management of biological diversity. At the National level, the Australian Government’s water policy recognises the rights of First Nations to access water on their Country. The National Water Initiative (NWI), Australia’s flagship National water policy, requires all jurisdictions to provide for Indigenous access to water resources and inclusion of Aboriginal people in water planning. However, Australian governments have consistently failed to meet these commitments.

Research suggests that as of 2020, Aboriginal people and organisations across the Basin hold water entitlements that provide access to 12,774 megalitres (ML) of surface water per year (on average). That’s less than 0.2% of all the surface water available through water entitlements in the Basin. (By comparison, Aboriginal people make up 5.3% of the Basin’s population.) Australian Aboriginal people are marginalised from the modern water market. 

Likewise, Indigenous people face challenges having their voices heard in decisions about how water should be managed. MLDRIN consistently advocates for reform and resourcing to support Aboriginal access to water for a range of cultural, environmental and economic outcomes. Achieving these goals requires  building principles of justice and equity into decisions about how Australia’s water resources are allocated. There are some exciting opportunities and projects underway, including the National Cultural Flows Research Project and commitments from State governments to support Aboriginal participation in water markets.


[1] W.S (Bill) Arthur (2010) The Murray-Darling Basin Regional and Basin Plans: Indigenous water and land data. Murray Darling Basin Authority, Commonwealth of Australia. MDBA Publication No 20/12

[2] Murray Darling Basin Plan S. 6.04 (2) Note. p. 28