Sub-project 3 – Developing alternative management models for Indigenous water plans and strategies in Australia's north


The Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA) aims to provide the science needed to inform the development and protection of northern Australia's water resources, so that development is ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable.

This brochure describes the results from Sub-project 3 of the NAWFA Social and Cultural Values Project. This sub-project focussed on developing alternative management models for Indigenous water plans and strategies in northern Australia.

Project aims

This project reviewed the published academic literature to identify co-management arrangement models from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, in order to inform the development of alternative management models for Indigenous water plans and strategies in Australia's north. The project also analysed the functions of water management in the Northern Territory to inform discussion by Indigenous leaders and communities.

Focus area

The project focused on water management in the Northern Territory with input from the Northern Territory Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sports (NRETAS) in scoping the research.

Key findings

As an alternative to management of natural resources solely by the State, the concept of co-management encompasses a variety of arrangements to share management responsibilities for common property resources between state administrators and the groups dependent on those resources. In particular, co-management refers to collaborative management arrangements with Indigenous custodians, with the purpose of improving management efficiency and taking into account all available knowledge on which to base management decisions.

3.1 Canadian, New Zealand and Australian literature on co-management

Canadian co-management arrangements developed following the 1996 Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which recognised Canada's Aboriginal peoples as self- governing nations within the Canadian confederation. Generally, Canadian co- management arrangements fall within two principal broad categories: claims- based co-management and crisis-based co-management. Arrangements have a basic four-part structure (partnership- building; institutional structure; mandate and authority; membership and board size) that is underpinned by provisions to build legitimacy for the co-management arrangement.

New Zealand's customary use of lands and natural resources is provided primarily through the 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act which provides legal recourse for the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, which agreed to Maori rights in exchange for British settlement. Co-management arrangements have developed to recognise customary fishing rights, and to manage commercial fisheries. In addition, co-management has been put into place for the Waikato River. Legislation for this is underpinned by Maori cultural values. It sets up the Waikato River Authority which has a representative board for decision-making and financial resource allocation, with half Crown and half Maori membership. Despite the progress made throughout New Zealand in the area of co-management, a number of challenges have been identified which must be overcome for the full realisation of co-management. These challenges include: divergent philosophies on conservation, an absence of resources and opportunities for Maori capacity building in scientific research, the lack of trust from conservation groups, a reluctance to share power, and institutional inertia.

Australia has no single piece of policy or legislation that establishes co- management relationships between the Australian government and Indigenous people. Thus with Australia's federal structure and six state and two territory governments with jurisdiction over land and water, there are a diversity of co-management arrangements.

The earliest co-managed resources were national parks established in the 1980s, followed by Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) established since the 1990s through the Australian National Reserve System, with formal conservation agreements in place overIndigenous owned land and seas. Native title legislation provides for Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) which are formal, voluntary agreements with native title claimants and may incorporate or trigger co-management arrangements, particularly for protected areas.

More recently, two water co-management boards have been established in Western Australia following negotiations with mining companies. They focus on waterbodies of cultural significance that have the potential of being affected by mineral extraction activities.

3.2 Functions of water management in the NT

In the Northern Territory, NRETAS's Water Resources Branch is responsible for implementing the Water Act and to develop Water Allocation Plans across the Northern Territory. The Branch is also responsible for undertaking various water management functions including: licensing, regulation and compliance. The functions of water management that NRETAS is responsible for are detailed as a part of the report. The diagram above illustrates the diversity of the tasks involved, and how they are linked and feed back upon one another.

An examination of the planning, licensing and allocations context of the Northern Territory demonstrates that there exists substantial opportunity to build upon Indigenous engagement that has taken place in the planning process to develop co-management arrangements in order to address uncertainties around Indigenous water requirements. Other opportunities for co-management may arise as Indigenous groups become familiar with the tasks of water management, and develop capacity to share in these tasks.

Management implications/recommendations

Recommendations for co-management of Australian protected areas have been made in key literature reviewed and this report suggests that theseshould be considered for Indigenous water strategies. They are:

  • There is a need for further government recognition and support for co-management;
  • Continued capacity building efforts are required to enable Traditional Owner groups to take more leadership in co-management, primarily the explicit development of strong Indigenous leadership. Future generations should aspire to participate in co-management so that ‘the journey continues’;
  • Co-management partnerships should be expanded to include NGOs and business organisations;
  • Management should be extended towards ‘whole of Country (land and sea, crossing jurisdictions) and whole of government’ approaches;
  • Indigenous rangers may take on increased roles and activities for implementation of co-management in water strategies and funding needs to commensurate with this;
  • A practical set of guidelines at a State or regional scale is needed that assist Traditional Owners to organise themselves towards co- management, and for Indigenous and non- Indigenous prospective co-managers to plan together; and
  • Co-management in practice would benefit from the establishment of a national co-management network, like the IPA managers network, and provision of resources and forums to enable members of this network to meet.

Two main themes present as prerequisites for co-management arrangements: an enabling legal and policy environment; and the instance of a perceived crisis or stress on resources, areas, or domains to be managed, particularly in the case where joint management of water resources emerge.

When developing alternative models for management, it is helpful to have a ‘change-agent’ from the community driving the process, dialogues with key players and groups and the identification of potential partners.

Power, resource, and knowledge sharing are also core elements necessary for effective co-management as is creating a common understanding and building trust amongst participants. To assist this, it is recommended that conflict resolution mechanisms be considered at the earliest stage to support the co-management process.

Future research requirements

Alternative management models examined in this report may be explored in specific areas considered appropriate by Indigenous leaders and communities. Any exploration should allow for an adequate time frame appropriate to the development of understanding of all parties, particularly to address how to bring together divergent world views and knowledge systems in order to benefit management systems.

Further, the emerging themes from the literature review and the recommendations from experiences and attempts at co-management in Canada, New Zealand and Australia may provide a framework for NRETAS to develop guidelines on entering into co-management arrangements with Indigenous communities for water management.

Further information

Professor Poh-Ling Tan
Griffith University

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. This project was developed in collaboration with research partners from TRaCK (Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge ) – a research hub which has drawn together more than 70 of Australia's leading social, cultural, environmental and economic researchers.