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SUBMISSION: Reform is needed to achieve water justice and protect our most precious resource

Water is our most precious resource, and is essential to all life. ALEC and the Environment Centre NT believe the Northern Territory’s water regulatory system is failing, and is inadequate to meet the current and future threats and challenges to our water resources. Our submission to the National Water Reform 2020 puts forward key recommendations and reforms to achieve water justice.

The key threats to our water resources are:  


Water insecurity in remote Indigenous communities

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

Climate change is significantly impacting our water resources, and the viability of life in the Northern Territory, including from harsher and longer droughts, erratic rainfall (and recharge of aquifers), and increased evapotranspiration.  Climate change will worsen existing inequalities in health, infrastructure provision, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and income in Indigenous communities.

Agribusiness and industrialisation of water

The Northern Territory Government is proceeding with plans for large-scale industrial and water-intensive agriculture across the Northern Territory. There are plans for 168,000 hectares of agribusiness development across the NT, involving extensive land clearing of NT savannas and the arid zone (i.e. ecosystems on the verge of collapse), and which will require billions of additional litres of the Northern Territory’s groundwater and surface water.


Key recommendations:

ECNT and ALEC 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.

We call for the following reforms to the Northern Territory’s water regulatory system to achieve water justice:

  1. Legislate for a right to safe drinking water for all Territorians in a Safe Drinking Water Act (as called for by the four NT land councils in 2020).
  2. Re-establish water advisory committees to ensure that water planning processes are transparent, accountable, and that community and stakeholder input is appropriately obtained for all water planning in the Northern Territory.
  3. Establish mechanisms for catchment or ecosystem-based management of waterways in the Northern Territory by an independent (government-funded) panel of experts, land and water users, and community members, specifically including Traditional Owners or their representative institutions.
  4. Set a price on water for consumptive use by irrigators to ensure that water management in the NT is adequately resourced, and to stop the entrenched practice of transferring public wealth to private hands via the handing out of significant water licences for free to irrigators.
  5. Legislate to stop the entrenched practice of granting significant water licences to irrigators prior to the declaration of water allocation plans, to enable a more strategic approach to water management planning.
  6. Publicly report on compliance, monitoring and enforcement activities with respect to water licences.
  7. Publicly report on environmental and cultural water.
  8. An independent water regulator should be established in the Northern Territory. There should be institutional separation between water service delivery, policy-making and regulation to prevent political interference in water regulation and the perception of bias.
  9. All water allocation plans in the Northern Territory must include modelling for climate change.
  10. All scientific and technical models underpinning water allocation plans and water licences must be made publicly available, and peer reviewed.
  11. Revise the 20-year old Water Allocation Planning Framework by embedding best practice environmental practices and outcomes.
  12. Ban the practice of floodplain or surface water harvesting

Download our full submission here.

Further reading:

  • Australia's lesser-known ecosystems are heading for collapse. Here's what we stand to lose, ABC Science article.  Recent research has found that three of the NT’s principal ecosystems, the northern savannas and coastal mangrove forests of the wet/dry tropics in the “Top End”, and the arid zone interior of Central Australia, all meet the criteria to be classified as “collapsing”. [Source]
  • NT Land Councils: election must be a watershed for protection of remote drinking supply, Central Land Council


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