The fight for the Martuwarra

The Martuwarra (Fitzroy) River system winds its way through Western Australia’s Kimberley region, along deep troughs and shallow rivulets, nourishing a complex and finely tuned ecosystem as well as the culture and cosmology of the local traditional owners.

The river is fed by 20 tributaries and flows through three shires across the lands of seven different Indigenous nations, before emptying into the Indian Ocean at King Sound.

For Dr Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa Indigenous academic and researcher who advocates to protect the river, the Martuwarra is home, and a living ancestor.

“It’s the construction of our whole identity,” Poelina says. “It’s the river of life.”

Last Tuesday, the Western Australian State Government closed the public submission period for decision-making on the Martuwarra’s hydrological future.

The submissions were canvassed in response to the State Government’s November 2020 paper, Managing Water in the Fitzroy River Catchment, that outlined its proposals for the future of the river system. While the proposal ruled out aboveground damming, it advocated taking groundwater from underground aquifers in the system.  

Read more: Does nature have rights?

Some have expressed fears that under the auspices of government, and pushed by bastions of industry, the river could go the way of the Murray-Darling Basin, drained of water and lifeblood thanks to overzealous irrigation practices.

The McGowan government finds itself in a balancing act between people who want to preserve the river as it is, and local landholders who demand economic opportunity.

Among the pastoralists and landholders vying for access to the Fitzroy’s aquatic gold is Australia’s richest person, multi-billionaire Gina Rinehart, who wants to divert water from the river for her Liveringa cattle station.

But the Fitzroy river, like all river systems in the arid, monsoonal Kimberley, is seasonal and unpredictable: in a given year it may flood, filling the entire system, but it also may not. In these in-between times, local species rely on remnant pools to survive until the next flood event, leaving these ecosystems in a precarious balancing act.

In response to the State Government paper, Poelina and the other members of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council produced a submission emphasising the importance of foregrounding the Traditional Owners in decision-making, and preventing the extraction of water from culturally and ecologically important tributaries and aquifers. The Council expressed concern about the many unknowns of water extraction in the region and how it may affect local water-flows, including these below-ground aquifers.

“Even at the policy and decision-making processes, we don’t have all of the science to make informed decisions about how we should be taking water from these stressed systems,” Poelina says. “And we don’t appear to be seeing from the state government how they’re going to balance this take against climate science.”

A delicately balanced ecosystem

The Martuwarra is home to several vulnerable and unique species, including the endangered sawfish, one of Western Australia’s iconic species, which relies on wet-season deluges and which is already imperilled by the prospect of more frequent droughts and climate change.

David Morgan is a researcher in aquatic ecosystems at Murdoch University, and a specialist in the unique fish life of the Martuwarra.

“A lot of people think ‘oh, it’s just a river’, but they don’t understand the importance of this river to these globally threatened species,” Morgan says.

Because the Martuwarra is seasonal, the fish in its waterways rely on periodic deluges for their survival.

“There’s only been four years in the last 20 that we’ve had really good recruitment of freshwater sawfish,” Morgan says. “So, we know that the flow is critical, and with reduced flow we know that it can be very drastic.”

Morgan says the fish species that depend on the Martuwarra are already vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, which will push the Kimberley’s already dramatic temperatures upwards.

“When it’s hot, there’s less dissolved oxygen available for fish to access,” he says. “So, you can end up with these massive densities of fish, and then, as we’ve seen in the Murray-Darling, you get lots of fish kills, and that’s going to happen more and more.”

Morgan says that, from his perspective, the extraction of aquifer groundwater is likely to be less risky than surface water extraction – but there are still unknowns.

The below-ground aquifers, some of which are being eyed off for extraction, are also vastly important to the river system in its totality. A 2020 study in Hydrobiologia found that groundwater along the Fitzroy River was intimately related to the biomass and resilience of local benthic algae. Writing online about the research, lead author Ryan Burrows, formerly of Griffith University, warned that reductions in groundwater could influence the productivity of the river and interrupt local food-webs.

Murray-Darling 2.0?

Many of those expressing concerns about developments to the Martuwarra point to the Murray-Darling Basin catastrophe as a lesson in what not to do. Blighted by a cocktail of factors including extreme drought, decades of irrigation and – some argue – poor management practices, the basin no longer has the water required to support itself.

The basin, which produces a third of Australia’s food, has in recent years suffered from mass fish kills, prolonged periods of utter dryness, and the depletion of its ecosystems.

The Australian Government’s Murray-Darling Basin Plan, signed into law in 2012, was designed to establish how much water could be taken from the Basin each year while leaving enough for its local ecosystem. This was meant to be achieved through a system of water rights: the commodification of the Basin’s water into tradeable units that could be regulated. But the plan is controversial, unpopular with agriculturalists who believe they’ve been deprived of the irrigation water they need during droughts, and unpopular with environmentalists who believe it hasn’t done enough to protect and sustain the Basin’s natural flow, which has slowed to a trickle.

Poelina says Traditional Owners from the Martuwarra continue to share their learnings with Traditional Owners from the Murray-Darling about how to protect their waters from going the same way.

“We are learning a lot from the Murray-Darling Basin,” Poelina says. “We are sharing the experience of how these Traditional Owners had this amazing system, resulting in ecocide and incremental genocide with the changes they’ve seen in that system over time.”

Who owns the Martuwarra’s water?

Poelina and the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council believe a legislative framework is paramount to enable the Traditional Custodians to be involved in river governance, before any allocations or water trading can begin.

“What we’re asking of government is a way that we can have a Fitzroy River management plan that brings everybody to the table, and is grounded in good science and the wellbeing of everything and everyone connected to this globally unique river.”

One of the proposed mechanisms for sharing water with Aboriginal people has been the concept of a Strategic Aboriginal Reserve, a legal framework that allocates a measure of the available water for purchase by Indigenous landholders. But the Council believes there are important conversations to be had about whether water should be a right or a purchasable interest for Aboriginal people.

“A strategic Aboriginal reserve requires Aboriginal people to have a water license, with the capacity and capital to purchase a water license. Aboriginal people will need to partner with someone or have at least several million dollars to be able to do all your studies to apply for a water license to get into the water market, and we think that is definitely unfair and unjust.

“As Indigenous people who have been managing and looking after these systems, particularly the Fitzroy River, since the dawn of time, how come we still have to go through the same processes and have the same level of capital to be able to profit from that water?”

Moreover, she says that allocation of water rights to industry and agriculture should be parked until safe drinking water is available and affordable for Aboriginal communities in the region.

“We have multiple Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley who don’t even have water fit for human consumption,” Poelina says. “So, we’re here fast-tracking and investing in water infrastructure for agriculture when we have not attended to our duty of care to ensure Aboriginal communities have access to clean drinking water.”

Protecting water on a drying continent

Adam Rose is a specialist in water systems and water ecology at Central Queensland University. While his research focuses on the tropical water systems of the Queensland coast, Rose says Australia’s water systems share fundamental similarities that make working with them unique and complex.

“Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth,” Rose says. “Years ago, before colonisation, everything was different – the soils were different, we didn’t have hard-hooved animals, and so when it would rain it would soak into the environment and filter through these soils and get to our creeks and rivers.

“All of our plants and animals have evolved under these conditions, and then the white fella arrives and brings these two traditional European farming methods, clearing all of the trees and introducing animals.

“Just in that we changed that water cycle.”

Rose says proper management of our embattled water systems requires relying on traditional knowledge systems, rather than top-down governance.

“I want to know some of the old stories about what plants and what fish were where in the traditional stories,” he says. “Instead of having Canberra tell us what to do, I think we should be joining forces with the traditional owners, getting the farmers and the scientists to actually do the research in that catchment together and start to make local decisions for the catchment.”

Poelina points out that in a warming world, where water tables are shifting south, water governance and management is paramount.

“The Bureau of Meteorology is saying we need to learn to live with less water, and yet the approach (being proposed) is to look at how do we swallow up as much water from the system as possible,” Poelina says. Traditional owners, on the other hand, “live under a law of the river, a law of obligation to protect the river because it is the river of life”.

From her perspective, the Martuwarra has vital importance not just to its traditional custodians but to the nation and the planet, too.

“It’s a national heritage site, and it’s the largest listed Western Australian Aboriginal cultural heritage site, so it belongs to our fellow Australians and it belongs to the world, too. We don’t want a repeat of Juukan Gorge in the destruction of our sacred site.”

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