28 - Aboriginal access to water in Australia: opportunities and constraints  pp. 601-628

Aboriginal access to water in Australia: opportunities and constraints

By Sue Jackson

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Water is vested with great cultural and symbolic significance as well as economic importance in Aboriginal societies. Aboriginal Australians hold distinct cultural perspectives on water relating to identity and religious attachment to place, environmental knowledge, and the exercise of custodial responsibilities to manage inter-related parts of customary estates. In Aboriginal belief systems, water is a sacred and elemental source and symbol of life, and aquatic resources constitute a vital part of the customary economy. The pursuit of livelihoods derived from water-based enterprises on Aboriginal lands, such as pastoralism, horticulture, and sport fishing, expand the range of interests Aboriginal people have in water to include a commercial element.

Over 200 years ago upon the British occupation of Australia, Aboriginal people were deprived of much of their lands and most were restricted to reserves set aside for their use. Non-Aboriginal occupation, settlement, and development has changed the quality, quantity and flow patterns of rivers in all but a small number of Australia's remote drainage basins. Substantial costs have been incurred by Aboriginal people during the development of Australia's water resources and negligible compensation awarded to those affected.

Following recognition provided by the Australian High Court's Mabo decision and the Native Title Act 1993, Aboriginal legal rights to inland waters exist in Australia and there are now in excess of 600 native title claims Australia-wide (McFarlane, 2004).

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