First Nations people share less than 1 per cent of the Murray-Darling water market.

Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute has compiled the volume and value of water rights owned by First Nations groups in the basin.

The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) commissioned the report, which found that 44 First Nations groups share in a mere 0.12 per cent of the $16 billion market. 

Their 64 entitlements give rights to an annual water take worth just $15 million.

Dr Lana Hartwig from the Australian Rivers Institute says the dispossession has occurred in three waves.

The first wave occurred when colonial pastoralists claimed land next to rivers and were granted permission to extract water. 

“If you held land you applied to the state government to take water,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“But 100 years ago Aboriginal people couldn’t own land unless it was a reserve and even then the Crown held the title to that reserve, which meant that First Nations couldn’t hold land, so they couldn’t hold water.”

Dr Hartwig said a second wave then followed years later, when land rights began to be granted to First Nations people. She says these deals typically only allow access to poorer quality land, with no other water rights attached.

“The third wave of dispossession is now, where water became a commodity from 2004,” Dr Hartwig said.

The unbalanced, pre-existing rights rose in value when non-tradeable water rights were transferred to the open market. 

Now, because the Murray Darling water market is fully allocated, any new players must buy in at significant cost.

The federal government has set aside $40 million (just 0.2 per cent of the Murray-Darling water market’s value) to buy rights for Aboriginal peoples across the basin almost three years ago, but none of that money has been spent.

This is despite the fact that the Closing the Gap agreement in March 2019 includes a goal to form a target for First Nations water ownership.

MDBA chief Phillip Glyde says water is crucial for First Nations people, having been identified in the 2020 Basin Plan Evaluation as an area for ongoing focus by state and federal governments.