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Our water regulatory system is failing in the Northern Territory

Water is our most precious resource, and is essential to all life.

Right now, there is significant and longstanding water insecurity in remote Indigenous communities, including due to the fact that drinking water is unregulated and unprotected in these places. Climate change is significantly impacting our water resources, and the viability of life in the Territory. Within the context of climate change, the NT Government is pushing ahead with plans for large-scale industrial and water intensive agriculture both in the Top End and arid zone.

ALEC and the Enviornment Centre NT believe the Northern Territory’s poor water regulatory system means that we are ill-equipped to manage these serious threats and challenges to our water.

Here are the issues with our water laws:

  1. There are currently no legal protections for drinking water quality in the Northern Territory. There is no general power to reserve water for current and future drinking water supply against other uses. There are no minimum standards for water quality across the NT. Drinking water provision is completely unregulated in remote Indigenous communities.
  2. The Northern Territory has very few declared water allocation plans, with only 28% of the volume of water licences currently captured by those plans. This means that the vast majority of water licence decisions in the Northern Territory (72%) are occurring without appropriate planning oversight, a rigorous and publicly-tested scientific basis, or appropriate stakeholder and public engagement.
  3. By the time water allocation plans are declared, water systems are typically already completely allocated (or overallocated), reducing the much-celebrated “Strategic Aboriginal Reserve” in the Northern Territory (which only takes legislative effect upon the declaration of a water allocation plan) to a nominal concept, and undermining the utility and efficacy of water planning processes;
  4. Water advisory committees (the only mechanism currently in place to ensure stakeholder and public engagement in water planning) are not functioning effectively, and indeed seem to have been disbanded in many cases.
  5. There are no mechanisms for catchment or ecosystem-based management of water resources in the Northern Territory, including to provide oversight of environmental and cultural water.
  6. There is no independent oversight, reporting or auditing of the Northern Territory’s management of environmental and cultural water.
  7. The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction (apart from Western Australia) that does not charge irrigators for water. This means that:
    • the key mechanism to fund water resource management by the Northern Territory Government is absent, seriously impeding the compliance, monitoring and enforcement functions which are essential for the success of any water allocation system.
    • water licensing in the Northern Territory currently involves the direct transfer of public wealth into private hands, and appears to constitute a significant mismanagement of public resources. The Northern Territory has recently introduced water trading within water allocation plan areas, which means that irrigators can trade a public resource obtained by them for free at a profit.
  8. Monitoring, compliance and enforcement functions appear to be either extremely poor, or absent. There is no public reporting of these functions, significantly undermining the transparency of the water regulatory regime.
  9. There is no institutional separation between water service delivery, policy-making and regulation with respect to water in the Northern Territory. Indeed all these roles appear to be performed by the one department. It has long been standard practice in the Northern Territory that the Water Controller is also the CEO of the relevant Department, who reports to the Environment Minister. Further, there is no independent economic regulation of water in the Northern Territory.
  10. The Northern Territory’s key water planning policy, the Water Allocation Planning Framework, is over 20 years old and allows the unsustainable draining or ‘mining’ of aquifers in the arid zone of the Northern Territory. Moreover, it is not binding, and is sometimes departed from by the Northern Territory Government for individual water licensing decisions with little public or scientific justification.
  11. There is no modelling for climate change impacts in Northern Territory water allocation plans, nor water licensing decisions.


ALEC and ECNT call for urgent reform of the Northern Territory’s water regulatory system. Any reform should be grounded in principles of water justice which ensure:

  • that Traditional Owners, and their representative institutions, are centred in all decisions about
    management and use of water in the Northern Territory;
  • that everyone’s basic water needs are met;
  • that the high ecological, cultural and social value of the Northern Territory’s waterways are
    recognised and protected;
  • that people who are affected by decisions about water are given a seat at the table; and
  • that our water is recognised as a valuable public good that should not be squandered.

Take action 

The NT Government is developing a Strategic Water Plan to set the agenda on water management through to 2050 and the Directions Paper is open for public comment.

This is a key opportunity for the public to be heard about how to fix the Northern Territory’s water laws, so that public trust in the management of our most precious resource can be restored. This is vital, not just for the protection of the environment, but for all of those who rely on water, from residents of bush communities to farmers.

Direct community response to key legislation and policy is one of the most effective ways we can hold the Government accountable.

  • The Environment Centre NT have put together a comprehensive submission guide. It includes what to put in your submission, key technical points and further resources to help you write a great submission to protect Territory water.
  • When you are finished, email your submission to [email protected] by the deadline, Friday 4 February 2021.


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