Managing Kimberley water now for the Future

Photo: Magali McDuffie

By Dr Anne Poelina*

In the Kimberley region of Northern Australia community, industry and native title leaders are looking for ways to create jobs, share the wealth and secure the future for all Kimberley people.

The cattle industry with the new abattoir on the Great Northern Highway looks promising, and infrastructure for water-for-food projects is coming on line. Pastoralism, agriculture, permaculture and aquaculture, wild harvest and the growing of bush foods and medicines are being promoted across the globe as emerging and growing regional industries.

In promoting the opportunity to have a united plan for diverse industries, we need to have a better understanding of the current and future demands on water, and of how we are going to work together to share the benefits among all the stakeholder groups of our most precious resource.

As a native title holder and a Director on our Body Corporate, I see there is in-principle support for Kimberley people to work together to plan not only sustainable livelihoods but sustainable life.

Following the National Heritage listing of the Fitzroy River (Mardoowarra) in 2011 (photo, above right), I have been developing ideas around a holistic big-landscape plan. A plan to showcase and market the earth science, culture, shared heritage and conservation values of the Mardoowarra would not prevent or preclude other developments.

Issues of land, food and energy security in 2015 bring Kimberley people now to the critical point where we need to sit around the table and plan how we are going to use and manage Kimberley water, now and for the future.

Water stewardship equals good water governance

On 3 November 2015 Kimberley non-government organisations and community members from Derby, Fitzroy Valley and Broome gathered (photo below) to discuss how Kimberley people can have a stronger voice in decisions about the future use and management of rivers and groundwater.

These resources are known to traditional owners and custodians as ‘Living Water’.

The meeting was full of positive energy as people listened and shared water- and land-stories and their connection to the Fitzroy River catchment. Former Murray-Darling Basin Authority executive Jason Alexandra facilitated the workshop, which was attended by representatives from Traditional Owner groups, landholders, conservationists, researchers and community members. 

The workshop heard about the activities of Water Stewardship International (WSI), whose approach was developed in Australia during the devastating drought of the 2000s.

It is now being used by local communities worldwide to achieve responsible use and management of freshwater, in ways that are socially and economically beneficial and environmentally sustainable.

The Director of Water Stewardship Australia, Michael Spencer, explained: ‘WSI’s framework considers all the elements of water use and management that communities feel are important, including cultural uses, and it sets standards that are internationally consistent. A key part is to achieve good water governance.’

The meeting was timely, coinciding with increasing development activities and proposals in the Fitzroy Valley and West Kimberley. These bring opportunities and risks for river systems such as the Fitzroy River and its connection to living water systems.

There was strong support from the meeting participants for the creation of a broad-based coalition of interests along the lines of the Fitzroy Catchment Management Group or FitzCAM, which was set up in the Fitzroy catchment in 2008 and ran for two years.

FitzCAM was a regional governance model which brought many different groups together and built trust and respect between local people and groups with a commitment to work towards best practice land and water management. I believe there is general agreement about forming an alliance.

Participants were reminded that the region is working in a different political and economic climate.

However, there was full agreement to continue to work with government and industry groups to look at how a new alliance could happen within a water stewardship framework. A long-term goal of this framework would be for Aboriginal people and the wider regional community to become better informed in our decisions about future water use and allocation, based on detailed risk assessments and employing international best practice standards.

To learn more about these ideas, contact me at or phone 0408 922 155.

*Dr Anne Poelina is a 2011 Fellow of the Trust