Water purchase scheme turns tide for Indigenous owners

A long-awaited Indigenous water-ownership scheme has been launched in the Murray-Darling Basin.

​The Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program makes $100 million available to buy water in the Basin, with Aboriginal representatives to determine how the money is spent.

An interim governance body has been set up by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek so water entitlements can be purchased, before a permanent body is established.

Its directors and advisory group members were independently selected from First Nations groups in the Basin, the minister said on Saturday.

A strategic purchasing framework has also been released outlining the types of water entitlements and purchase methods including through brokers, expressions of interest, market-led proposals or gifts.

The scheme has been developed in close partnership with Indigenous representatives to ensure it supports cultural, economic, social and environmental needs, according to Ms Plibersek.

"First Nations communities have cared for Murray-Darling Basin rivers for thousands of years but have been largely excluded from accessing, managing and owning water," she said.

"The ... program begins to reverse that legacy and recognises the lasting and deep connection of First Nations peoples with water."

Victoria's Yoorrook Justice Commission was told in April native title covers 40 per cent of Australian land yet Indigenous people held rights to less than one per cent of surface water.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies also testified that the state had received some $6.6 billion from inland water revenue for 2021/22, of which traditional owners had received no primary benefit.

The entitlements program was initially announced as a $40 million federal commitment by the former coalition government in 2018, but failed to come to fruition.

Its revival and upgrade was flagged by Ms Plibersek following a deal with the Greens in late 2023, and welcomed by Indigenous groups.

Large portions of Basin communities remain opposed, with thousands of people rallying in four southern areas in November and December.

Ms Plibersek will report annually to parliament on the social and economic impacts of water purchasing programs.