The Murray-Darling Basin science

Effects of change in water availability on Indigenous people of the Murray-Darling Basin

Page 6 of 9


Indigenous Australians hold legal rights to Australia’s inland waters, which include rights for hunting, gathering, and fishing for personal, domestic, or non-commercial needs, and other public benefits.

Currently quantifying Indigenous water use and specifying Indigenous water requirements lags behind other uses in terms of the development of scientific methods to estimate the relative benefits of water use and resolve tensions between competing allocations.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is responsible for developing a Basin Plan which will support the integrated management of the Basin’s water resources.

It will identify key environmental assets and ecosystem functions of water resources that must be protected and will use social and economic information to make decisions about water delivery to meet environmental requirements.

To assist the MDBA's understanding of the social and economic impacts that changes in water availability might have on Indigenous communities, they have sought advice from CSIRO.


CSIRO scientists have undertaken a scoping study to investigate how these changes may affect Indigenous people in the Basin.

CSIRO has provided a review and synthesis of the current knowledge of Indigenous cultural, social, economic, and environmental values of water to complement other social and economic contextual reports and assessments designed to optimise the outcomes of the Basin Plan.

The research involved a literature review and three case studies to explore the issue, conducted in:

  • Barmah-Millewa Forest a site of great importance to the Yorta Yorta traditional owners
  • Hay, New South Wales (NSW), where the Nari Nari Tribal Council utilises water for a mix of cultural, environmental and economic purposes
  • Brewarrina Old Mission Billabong, NSW where the Ngemba traditional owners are working to improve the health of the billabong. CSIRO roundtable Meeting 2008 - scientists and traditional owners discuss Indigenous heritage management along the River Murray at Mildura.


The study found that the Basin’s water resources are now so tightly constrained that Indigenous people find it very hard to compete with other groups accessing water.

Across all three case studies Indigenous groups have met barriers to accessing water to keep billabongs healthy and for fishing and recreation. These barriers are of a legal, administrative, economic, institutional, and philosophical nature.

In order to overcome these barriers the groups are engaging with many government agencies and funding programs, and are investing their own resources.


The study found that the Basin Plan and its implementation present a significant opportunity to address the issue of Indigenous interests in water planning and to improve the extent to which Indigenous people benefit from water reforms, particularly from environmental water management.

For more information download the fact sheet on page eight.

Also available is the scoping study: Effects of change in water availability on Indigenous people of the Murray-Darling Basin (2010), which summarises impacts and opportunities of the Basin Plan on Indigenous groups across the MDB.

Download the summary of the report or the full report:

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