Indigenous Water Values and Water Management on the Upper Roper River, Northern Territory

Barber and Jackson for
Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) and the National Water Commission (NWC), April 2012


This brochure talks about an Indigenous water research project. Marcus Barber is from CSIRO in Darwin and has been working in the Mataranka and Jilkmingan area for two years. This was so that Indigenous voices could be heard in the government's water planning process. Water planning is when people sit down to talk about water - how much can be taken out of the ground or out of rivers to use and how much should stay there to look after the country. The traditional owners of the Roper area gave the CSIRO a permit to do this research through the Northern Land Council.

Roper River on Elsey Station photo

Roper River on Elsey Station

Marcus and another CSIRO researcher, Sue Jackson wrote two reports about Indigenous people and water in the Roper. These reports are now public. They are long reports, so this brochure says, in a short way, what is in them.

The First Report

Indigenous water values and water planning in the upper Roper River, NT

The first report talks about how Indigenous people in the Roper River have important Dreaming stories, water places, and names for the areas they own. Indigenous people who spoke to Marcus said water for fishing and hunting is important too. Some people called this 'water for the country' – water for the places, the animals, and the people. Mangarrayi people also give special names to trees along the river, names of the old people. This makes those trees really important to keep.

Older people talked about how the river and the rains have been different. The last few years were wet. In the past, it has been dry. Some people are also worrying about the water used by new farms. This information is in the report.

Mulurark, Roper River photo

Mulurark, Roper River

The government's law says that it controls the water. But it wants to include Indigenous people and give some of that control to them. It calls this a Strategic Indigenous Reserve (SIR). The government idea was that it would give Indigenous people control of ¼ of the water licenses for business and farms as an SIR. This is like giving one cup of milk from a 1 litre carton. Some Indigenous people said the SIR should be bigger than this, and their ideas were put in the first report.

The Second Report

Indigenous water management in the Upper Roper River, Northern Territory: history and implications for water planning

The second report talked about the traditional dams that people used to build on Mangarrayi country - at Red Lily, but also on Moroak.

Many people remember this story as a cattle story about Thomas Holt from Roper Valley and Harold Giles from Elsey. This happened around World War Two. But the old people used to build the dams to catch fish and hunt birds long before the cattle farmers came. Marcus went and found old letters and photographs. He put the story together with what older people living now still remember to tell the full story of the dams. Marcus also talked to local people about building dams

Mulurark, Roper River photo

Downstream view of traditional weir adjacent to Red Lily Lagoon, 16/10/1938

Source: James Mannion. Image supplied by the Northern Territory Police Museum from the James Mannion Collection

on Moroak. They did this until the 1980s. A couple of years ago, the Mangarrayi Rangers and the elders were worrying about changes on their country. The water was flowing too fast and cutting up the country. So they used the old knowledge to turn the water around. Now they want to do that when they see a problem. They want to manage their country properly. But this means that the government must recognise Mangarrayi rights to dam the water.

 Courtesy of Mangarrayi Rangers photo

Roper River and Red Lily wetlands. Credit: Courtesy of Mangarrayi Rangers

The second report helps the government understand this traditional knowledge and the story of the dams. Now they understand it, local people need to talk with the government about water management in the future. This might mean a special kind of water license. This license would recognise Indigenous people's right to look after the country by slowing down the river flow and pushing water to the wetlands.

New erosion channel leading away from Janggan (McCracken's Hole), Elsey Station

New erosion channel leading away from Janggan (McCracken's Hole), Elsey Station

The two reports mean that the CSIRO research project is finished. But talking about water is important, and will go on. The project has helped government and the public understand more about Indigenous water values and water management.

Cooking turtles at McCrackens photo

Cooking turtles at McCrackens

If you would like to know more about the Roper work please contact:
Marcus Barber
CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
Phone: 08 8944 8420

NAWFA is a multidisciplinary program being delivered jointly by the Australian Government's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the National Water Commission, in close collaboration with the Office of Northern Australia and state and territory government agencies. Through the Raising National Water Standards program under Water for the Future, the Australian Government has allocated up to $13 million for projects between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.