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Making Choices About Water
16 Dec 2021

the legal status of rivers meets blockchain and an Indigenous perspective on water rights

About the event

Making Choices about water

How, as leaders in our fields, can we foster a culture between us that creates better choices for water in 2022? Making Choices About Water is an invitation to attend an engaging discussion with water leaders in Australia. Speakers will share their perspectives about the values of water, its place in culture, the future of water management, and how we can collaborate to take better care of water, respecting that how water has been managed in Australia's recent history has left scars on our country that will take many hands to heal. We hope to open up new ways for community leaders and water managers to work together to ensure a better future for Australia's water. Join us as the speakers reframe the conversation regarding choices about how water should be valued and conserved as we renegotiate how it is allocated and governed.

Summary of content

Openness and transparency in water policy, use and management

Erin O’Donnell

Erin’s view is that Australia's water management has been largely technocratic, and from that perspective, Australia has got many things right in the water governance space. Media reports do, however, show we haven't quite figured out all of the solutions to the problems.

The process has not necessarily engaged communities and Australians may, in fact, be largely disengaged in the understanding of where our water comes from, how our water gets to us, what happens when it goes away what happens when we are done with it.

She sees both floods and droughts as evidence of climate change, that climate change is largely a water rights issue which is driving scarcity and that our government is struggling to keep up.

Erin is noticing law reforms to enable floodplain harvesting currently in New South Wales. She notes that even when flooding occurs as in Queensland recently, the hydrology of the land doesn't necessarily mean that the water gets into dams or replenishes aquifers underground. Even when there is rain, land behaves as if it was still in drought. Aquifers are another form of water capture present underground and their status is not so visible. In 2021, the Northern Territory government issued a license to draw on 40 megalitres per year for most of 30 years; the impact is modeled to be a 50m drop in the water table. Hydrology and water use may not be well coordinated with the politics of water management.

In Australia, the legislation makes it clear that water is not owned in concert with the land it sits on, under or passes through. It is vested in the crown. Water is managed by statutes, mostly at a state level. Indigenous ownership of water in the Murray Darling Basin is 0.2%, far less than parity with the 10% proportion of the Indigenous population. There is evidence of injustice, Aqua Nullius, not just Terra Nullius.

Erin proposes that granting personhood to rivers can change the relationship people have to water. Giving legal rights to rivers must be done in a way which does not lead to unforeseen consequences. She described instances of this approach overseas and in Melbourne, Australia.

State to state, water management policy and practice varies. In the Northern Territory, for example, a situation where the water governance structure has good bones, implementation does not appear to have the same quality in planning, data collection or decision-making. There are some real informational challenges where information comes too little or too late to inform the communities that need the water for their own economic use and for Indigenous Australians, for sacred sites. Erin spoke about Singleton Station and government permission to lower the aquifers by as much as 50m as an example.

Erin concludes that there is an opportunity for us to consider personhood for rivers. She urges governments to deliver local place – based planning arrangements that provide a robust system for water governance and a way for communities to participate in water management, an opportunity to provide data that informs adaptive management of that process.

Katrina Donaghy

Katrina's experience is in government. She noticed in 2015 the opportunity for government to use blockchain technology to provide a mechanism where data and governance that is transparent and trusted because it is decentralised.

She sees value in the peer to peer relationships blockchain supports so that we are able to exchange value with each other quickly, accurately and transparently.

Katrina shared stories of the concerns expressed by government stakeholders when she first raised using blockchain as an opportunity for managing water rights, concerns that the regulatory environment would not be able to adapt quickly enough to take on this technology. Her company is now involved in pilots and the early rollout of a blockchain process for managing a water ledger in far north Queensland.

She sees this new technology as enabling governance not from the top down but from the bottom up, changing how we actually look at marketplaces in a way that is co-designed within a place-based economic model.

Katrina notes there are technological issues holding us back like having good internet in remote regions. Blockchain is a huge opportunity to finally move away from spreadsheets as an accounting mechanism for water.

She sees technology as an enabler for allowing all stakeholders to not just manage water but also do this in a way which is consistent with philosophy and ethics and principles, to develop relationships where we can actually agree on what we value as humans about water and what water supports in our lives and how we come together as a community to achieve this.

Anne Poelina

Anne introduces herself as being a woman who belongs to the Martuwarra or Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. Rather than ownership, there is First Law which sets out an obligation for Indigenous people as guardians from the beginning of time. Indigenous people see themselves as planetary citizens with the duty of care and currently to reframe justice and equity particularly for water in a different way to how we currently frame water as an issue and opportunity in Australia.

Anne is clear that Indigenous Australians know that rivers are sentient, they are alive with agency, that they have their own story and they hold memory within their own energy system. Importantly, Indigenous people do not separate land and water and people. This more holistic view is unlike the relationship between land and water that is set out in the statutes of Australian law.

She states that Indigenous Australians are not anti-development, they are the original scientists working with knowledge from past, in present and for the future. They use the principles of First Law and lived experience of complexity to factor in knowledge to understand how these living systems operate, for example, where the water travels underground, or where it comes up.

Indigenous Australians see non-human families that also have water rights: the birds the trees the fish have a right to life as well, not just the river.

There are Indigenous Australian stories which tell about how water can be redistributed, think about the story of Tidilik who was speared when he was found to being greedy and drinking up all of the water.

Anne wants to know how we share information so that we make the best decisions going forwards using some of the great work already done on say bioregional frameworks to support place-based governance around water leadership and water trading, around water markets.

She sees evidence of speculation, modelling with uncertainty and a real need to find better science because of the impact of climate change. Do we really know how much water we've got in the catchment?

She admires the work of Professor Allan Dale: the big issue is how we learn from the case scenario of the Murray – Darling Basin? How do we not repeat those mistakes? We need to make sure we get the rules of the principles of engagement right and think about it more slowly.

Anne is clear that we are currently talking more about water wrongs rather than water rights, however Indigenous Australians as the original scientists about water can contribute much ancient wisdom about what is sustainable, what this looks like for our people on the land. How are we going to invest? How do we not leave vulnerable people behind? How do we ensure the well-being of the planet and nation? It's always place-based.

She ends by saying we have a law for these living water systems that is still valid today that we all have a voice and a way to contribute if there is goodwill.

Overall summary

Anne and Erin appear to see the technocratic approach to water management as being limiting. Might this approach possibly foster further injustice and a lack of practical awareness of other opportunities? Can we improve our understanding of how the Indigenous people’s knowledge of water management might support better decision-making? Can we change the legal constructs, the legal status of, for example rivers, to help decision-makers and indeed the wider population have a different relationship to water.?

There was curiosity about the impact of new technology. For Katrina, the water market as it is set up now, does not currently work. There is a practical and necessary step to be taken to use technology to make water trading more transparent, to make moves towards a system which is governed from the bottom up. Anne too is curious about how Indigenous Australians might apply blockchain technology for a more egalitarian approach to water management.

There was common agreement about the importance of good science and technology to know how much water is actually available in the catchments and underground and the sense that we can make better use of the science and knowledge we have. Making good use of this knowledge may be limited if the average Australian does not have great literacy about water management and hydrology. In their different ways, panel members acknowledged their awareness of the potential for water to be weaponised if we don't learn to negotiate water policy, use and management in a more open and transparent manner.

Our Speakers

Black and white photograph of Anne Poelina, an adult woman. She is looking directly at the photographer with a slight smile. She's wearing what appears to be a pearl necklace and she has her dark, curly hair swept back using a scarf.

Dr Anne Poelina

Dr Anne Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa woman from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. An active community leader, human and earth rights advocate, film maker and a respected academic researcher, with a second Doctor of Philosophy (First Law) titled, 'Martuwarra First Law Multi-Species Justice Declaration of Interdependence: Wellbeing of Land, Living Waters, and Indigenous Australian People'. Anne holds Master's Degrees in Pulbic Health, Eductation and Arts. Signatory to the Redstone Statement 2010 she helped draft at the 1st International Summit on Indigenous Environmental Philosophy in 2010. Anne is a 2011 Peter Cullen Fellow for Water Leadership. In 2017, she was awarded a Laureate from the Women's World Summit Foundation (Geneva), elected Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (2018), Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow with Notre Dame University and a Research Fellow with Northern Australia Institute Charles Darwin University. She holds membership to national and global Think Tanks. Dr Poelina is a Visiting Fellow with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, Canberra Australia Water Justice Hub to focus on Indigenous Water Valuation and Resilient Decision -making.

Katrina Donaghy

Katrina Donaghy is CEO of Civic Ledger, Prior to founding Civic Ledger, multi award winner technology company that aims to be the global, distributed ledger that all civic life takes place on. Civic Ledger's blockchain technology solutions provide the framework for markets of tomorrow that the global economy will depend on - water, carbon, nutrients, and biodiversity - to be securely and transparently accounted for – how much do we have, how much have we shared, and how much have we used. Before Civic Ledger, Katrina was a career bureaucrat spanning two decades in both state and local governments. She worked in the areas of strategy and program delivery to improve citizens' interactions with government. When Katrina struck upon blockchain technology in late 2015, she knew immediately that it had a place in government. Katrina is a former Director for Blockchain Australia and founded the Women in Blockchain Australia chapter. She speaks extensively on why blockchain matters for governments. She is currently involved in shaping the Australian government’s National Blockchain Strategy and is a Blockchain Australia Fellow.

Dr Erin O’Donnell

Dr Erin O’Donnell is a water law and policy expert, focusing on water markets, environmental flows, and water governance. She has worked in water management since 2002 in both the private and public sectors. Erin is recognized internationally for her research into the ground-breaking new field of legal rights for rivers, and the challenges and opportunities these new rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. In 2018, Erin was appointed to the inaugural Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River. Erin has recently completed a consultancy for The World Bank, on water markets and their role in water security and sustainable development. For the last three years, Erin has been working in partnership with Traditional Owners across Victoria to identify law and policy pathways to increase Aboriginal access to water.

Dr Wendy Elford

Dr Wendy Elford is an experience designer, knowledge wrangler and coherence architect who is intrigued about the many ways in which we can improve the lived experience of work and community life. Wendy has nearly 40 years experience in private industry, government, the built environment, health, education, community, agriculture and industry sectors. Her academic and advisory practice focuses on design integration for healthy interactions between people and things and how this connects to placemaking and the patterns of use over time. She weaves into the design of shared knowledge projects the values and intention that allow humans to work together and genuinely practice inclusive design. Wendy is passionate about story data, text modelling and machine learning for anticipating and managing change in large, unwieldy problem spaces. You will often find her camping, bushwalking and travelling or online with cool fellow conspirators.