NT water allocation draft risks ‘irreversible damage’ to country and culture, critics say: ABC

ABC Alice Springs / By Charmayne Allison 9/05/2023
Original story here on ABC

Graham Beasley says the NT government’s latest water allocation plan ignores sacred site protection.(Supplied: Central Land Council)

An outback Aboriginal land council has hit out at the Northern Territory government’s latest draft water allocation plan, claiming it “shows contempt” for traditional owners’ concerns.

The Central Land Council, which represents Central Australia’s native title holders, said the draft Western Davenport water allocation plan offered no protection for sites and the environment.

The draft plan, which has now been released for public comment, governs how groundwater in a vast region south of Tennant Creek should be managed.

It covers 24,500 square kilometres of country and includes Singleton Station, the planned site of a major horticultural project that has been granted a record-breaking licence.

The plan is supposed to balance the needs of industry and the environment to ensure the region’s groundwater is used sustainably.

Key points:

  • The peak body representing Central Australian traditional owners say a draft NT water allocation plan is a “disgrace”
  • The Western Davenport plan dictates the management of groundwater in a vast region south of Tennant Creek
  • Traditional owners fear it fails to protect sacred sites and groundwater ecosystems
An Aboriginal child about 5-years-old holds a leaky hose

The Western Davenport water allocation plan includes the record-breaking Singleton Station water licence.()

But a water advisory committee feared it didn’t adequately protect the arid desert environment it oversees, accusing the government of “mining water”.

Traditional owners, including Alekarenge community leader Graham Beasley, fear it will put cultural sites, plants and animals at great risk.

“I’m just concerned that it will destroy our country,” he said.

“It’s like taking a part of my body away from my body. It’s the same thing as what they’re doing to our land.”

New plan ‘a disgrace’

A draft of the new plan was set to be released for public comment in November last year, but was delayed pending further consultation, after it was revealed key stakeholders did not support it.

The draft has now been released, but the Central Land Council (CLC) accused the NT government of “fake consultations” in the lead-up to its publication.

“The so-called consultation process consisted of two misleading presentations by water planners who speak out-of-date information,” CLC chief executive and Arrernte man Les Turner said.

A man smiles at a camera

Les Turner says the latest water allocation plans comes after sham consultations with traditional owners.

The council claim the government told traditional owners the new plan would contain specific objectives, ensuring the protection of cultural and environmental values.

But CLC said when the draft plan was revealed, it only stated that Aboriginal cultural values should be “considered” when issuing water licences.

It also granted permission to interfere with or damage 30 per cent of groundwater ecosystems and sacred sites.

Mr Turner said the new plan was “a disgrace”.

“It unmasks the NT government’s total disregard for Aboriginal rights and our sites,” he said.

NT Environment Minister Lauren Moss was contacted for comment.

Water extraction ‘too high’

The Western Davenport plan includes one of Australia’s largest water licences on Singleton Station, which would be used to grow hay, melons, and avocados for export.

The licence has been the subject of legal scrutiny, as it will allow the licence holder, Fortune Agribusiness, to eventually extract 40,000 megalitres of groundwater a year.

The region’s water advisory committee has unanimously advised the NT Government that its estimate of how much water can be sustainably extracted is too high.

“Any drop in the water table risks irreversible damage to sacred springs, soakages and trees,” Mr Turner said.

“Our country and culture will be sacrificed if water extraction is not carefully managed and limited.”

A termite mound in Central Australia

Fortune Agribusiness plans to develop 3,500 hectares of the remote station to grow hay, avocados, onions, mandarins and jujube.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Calls for better protection

The NT Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security said the plan had been developed with input from the Western Davenport and Ti Tree Water Advisory Committee.

The committee met nine times and included community members, members of the Power and Water Corporation, and representatives from the environment sector, land council and industry.

A spokesperson said the resulting plan was informed by both the Water Act and views of the committee, as well as research studies, water assessments, long-term monitoring and bore drilling.

“As a measure of genuine intent to inform and seek the views of Aboriginal people, additional evidence-based consultations were held with traditional owners on the plan in Tennant Creek and in Ali Curung on two separate occasions,” the spokesperson said.

“[The plan] is supported by the Western Davenport Implementation Actions which outline the ongoing commitments to further understand Aboriginal cultural perspectives on water through the establishment of Aboriginal reference groups.

“Establishing these groups [is] reliant on the cooperation of the CLC and how the cultural mapping work is planned to be completed.”

A group of people walk down a street. The people at the front hold a banner that reads 'water is life'.

Traditional owners fear the new water plan will cause irreversible damage to sacred sites.(ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

The department said the draft plan maintained 97 per cent of water in the region for environment and cultural factors.

But Mr Turner maintained the plan would only spark the destruction of country and culture.

“This is devastating for our people, and it’s devastating for the environment,” Mr Turner said.

“They’re not listening to Aboriginal people. They’re not listening to scientists. Who are they listening to?”

The plan is open for consultation until May 14.