This report focusses on the Indigenous access provisions of the 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI).

It describes the policy mechanisms and processes that have been implemented to date for Indigenous participation in water planning and access to water. The report supplies detailed observations about these processes.

A decade of water reform in Australia culminated in the 2004 National Water Initiative (NWI, representing the most significant change in water policy since Australian Federation in 1901. The objectives of the NWI include increasing the security of water access entitlements and ensuring the economically efficient use of water resources. These are to be achieved by altering property rights to enhance trade in water, through water planning mechanisms, including environmental flow provisions, intergovernmental coordination and intensive information systems. 

The NWI explicitly recognises the special character of Indigenous interests in water. Parties to the NWI have agreed that water access entitlements and planning frameworks should recognise Indigenous needs ‘in relation to access and management’ (paragraph 25(ix)). Indigenous access is to be achieved through planning processes that:

• include Indigenous representation in water planning, wherever possible;

• incorporate Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies for achieving these objectives, wherever they can be developed;

• take account of the possible existence of native title rights to water in the catchment or aquifer area;

• potentially allocate water to native title holders; and 

• account for any water allocated to native title holders for ‘traditional cultural purposes’ (paragraphs 52–54).

Given low levels of awareness of water reform within the Indigenous sector, elements of the
NWI relating to community partnerships, knowledge and capacity building are also of
considerable importance.

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