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

Merging the waters of the Mardoowarra and the Meuse

Photo: Sophie Maillard.

Merging the waters of the Mardoowarra and the Meuse by Ian Perdrisat*

Standing in the middle of a 2000 year old Roman bridge, Peter Cullen Trust Fellow Dr Anne Poelina, a traditional custodian of the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) in the West Kimberley region of Australia, joined hands with Paul Michel, an elder of the small village of Brainville. Together they poured water from the creeks, springs and billabongs of the Fitzroy River valley into the ancient river Meuse deep in the heart of France.

The trip was in response to a visit to the Kimberley by Dr Philippe Vaillant, a French post doctoral research scientist who brought water from the Meuse River to merge with the Mardoowarra in April.

The water ceremonies sharing the energy of these great rivers were conducted to promote the need to protect the world's ancient river systems. Dr Vaillant’s work involves promoting community participation in integrated water planning and management.

Prior to the water ceremony Dr Poelina, Ian Perdrisat and Dr Vaillant participated in a workshop, with members of the Brainville community and the La Chenaie de Mambre association, about the need to build resilient river systems. Many of the world’s ancient river systems are threatened by the impact of mining, fracking, damming and extensive agriculture.

The French experience has been that resource extraction, industrialisation and agricultural activities involving pesticides and fertilisers have contaminated rivers to the point where the water is unfit for human consumption or swimming. Dr Poelina has lodged an objection in the Western Australian Mining Wardens court against the Duchess Paradise thermal coal mine proposed by Rey Resources.

She has also sent a submission to the WA EPA Public Environmental Review (PER). A wide range of interest groups including traditional custodians, scientists and environmental groups have also sent submissions to the WA EPA regarding Rey Resources, which wants to establish new coal mining precincts in greenfield wilderness areas such as the Fitzroy River Valley.

‘We must learn from the mistakes of the past whether they be in France or the Murray-Darling Basin; we must be guided by evidence in making decisions that once made cannot be undone. You cannot repatriate a poisoned river,’ Dr Poelina said.

Dr Anne Poelina (a 2011 Fellow of the Trust) attended the ‘Resilience and Development: Mobilising for Transformation’ conference (www. in Montpellier, and travelled through France during May, 2014 listening to concerns of scientists and the community about threats to the sustainability of living water systems from activities such as shale gas extraction, mining and chemical-based agriculture. 

Photo: Sophie Maillard.

Dr Philippe Vaillant, Paul Michel, Dr Anne Poelina and Ian Perdrisat with members of the Brainville community conducting the water ceremony.

*Ian Perdrisat is a member of the Mardoowarra community. 


Big Jump In Mining In Kimberley

The Centre for Conservation Geography analysed the extent of mining and exploration leases across the region and identified a 500 per cent increase in mining activity in the past decade. It also found current and proposed mines in the Kimberley are threatening
80 per cent of the area's rivers, wetlands and flood plains.

Rupert Quinlan from the Pew Environment Group, which commissioned the study, says the findings are significant because of the detrimental impacts mining can have on the environment. "What we're seeing is that mining doesn't have boundaries, mining can occur anywhere under the current legislation," he said. Mr Quinlan says the State Government needs to implement a regional plan to protect areas of environmental significance. 

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Map showing Kimberley mining leases and exploration, November 2012