The fate of the NT’s largest ever groundwater extraction licence hangs in the balance, as distressed traditional owners challenge the science behind the decision and the effectiveness of water laws.
Ghost gums, bean trees and native grasses sway in the wind.
Termite mounds bake in the sun while dry air licks the skin.
To the untrained eye, the sandy earth around Ali Curung is parched and its scarce life always thirsty.
But in arid Central Australia, everything is in the eye.
Kaytete and Alyawarre woman Rosie-Anne Holmes knows where to look.
“There’s plenty of water here, underneath,” she says.
“You look for big trees and green grass — there’s water there if you dig a bit.”
Only 380mm of rain might fall there on average each year, but the earth around Ali Curung is indeed full of water.
There’s so much water that in April, the Northern Territory government granted its largest ever groundwater extraction licence on a property next to Ms Holmes’s community.
Fortune Agribusiness has been given the right to eventually extract 40,000 megalitres of water a year from Singleton Station, for free.
The licence has been granted in four stages, starting with 13,000 megalitres a year.
Around 400 kilometres north of Alice Springs, 1,000 people call the region around the arid station home.
The government and Fortune Agribusiness say the environment won’t be impacted, but environmental groups, residents and traditional owners like Ms Holmes are worried.
They hold grave concerns for the science behind the decision and question the effectiveness of the Northern Territory’s water laws.
Five generations of Ms Holmes’s family live in Ali Curung.
She says the company needs to share the water.
“I want them to have a good future, I want this place to be here for them.”
Josie Douglas from the Central Land Council (CLC), the peak body representing traditional owners in Central Australia, says Aboriginal people in the NT have spent decades fighting for control of their land.
They have secured significant wins along with way, but when it comes to water rights, traditional owners feel silenced.
Dr Douglas says traditional owners still do not have a meaningful representation when it comes to how the Territory’s water is used and allocated.
The CLC believes the NT Water Act does not adequately protect Indigenous access to water and therefore fails to protect the livelihoods of those living in the bush.
“Aboriginal people are now asking themselves: ‘What’s the point of having land rights if the land we want back becomes unliveable because the water’s running out or polluted?'” Dr Douglas says.
“For Aboriginal people to have a future on their land, they need to be protected from proposals that lower the water table and kill groundwater-dependent ecosystems.”
Under the Land Rights Act, traditional owners can say no to development on Aboriginal freehold land, but because Singleton Station is a pastoral lease, the country’s Kaytete custodians only have native title rights.
“Native title gives them no veto right,” Dr Douglas says.
Kirsty Howey from the NT Environment Centre considers this one of the biggest issues raised by the licence.
“The fact that it’s been granted notwithstanding the community outcry and near-universal opposition from traditional owners, speaks to the failings in our water regulatory system,” she says.
Fortune Agribusiness plans to spend $150 million developing 3,500 hectares of the remote station to grow hay, avocados, onions, mandarins and jujube.
Seventy per cent will be exported to Asia.
The company says the development will generate $180 million in annual revenue once up and running, creating more than 100 permanent jobs and 1,350 seasonal gigs to a region where industry and employment opportunities are as scarce as rain.
Traditional owners say they welcome economic development in the region.
The community owns a nearby watermelon farm and has plans to use groundwater for three additional small-scale horticulture projects.
For the past year it has also operated Uncle’s Farm, a small-scale horticulture training centre where young people gain skills that will allow them to one day land local jobs.
The community is proud of the project, and it is so successful that the Department of Education has come onboard, meaning the farm is a pathway to formal qualifications.
This is significant for Ali Curung, where residents struggle with extreme poverty and many speak English as a third or fourth language.
The median income for Ali Curung’s Indigenous residents is $237, and only half of adults have been educated past Year 9.
For these reasons, community leader Derek Walker says the work at Uncle’s Farm is extremely important for Ali Curung’s future — it feeds a community that struggles with food insecurity and sets residents up for local jobs.
Mr Walker says he’s frustrated with the lack of consultation that has come with the water licence, not least because unanticipated damage to the region’s groundwater system could pose a threat to the community’s horticulture projects.
“Everything’s just going ahead without them coming to the community and listening to traditional owners, local people, about what we need for the future,” he says.
The community is also worried about its supplies of drinking water.
Many in Ali Curung are concerned because of what happened to some of their grandmothers and grandfathers.
In 1954, nearby Philip Creek ran out of water.
Three-hundred people were forced to move to what is now Ali Curung, and the pain of that dislocation lives on for their descendants.
“We got nowhere else to move though if there’s no water here,” Mr Walker says.
He says the community fears a return to how things used to be.
“We were born here, we grew up here, we have raised our own kids, grown them up here.”
Desmina Miller, a life-long resident of Ali Curung, agrees.
She wants the best for her young children and hopes they have a strong future in the community.
Initiatives like Uncle’s Farm are also good because they help keep young people “out of trouble”, she says.
That’s a loaded phrase in the NT, where youth crime is often in the news and Indigenous incarceration rates are the highest in the country.
Ms Miller says being connected to country is important — it gives young people a sense of purpose that stays with them throughout their lives.
“This place is our home and we feel connected to it; if we go away for two or three days, it calls us home.
It’s a mistake to imagine underground aquifers as underground lakes or rivers.
Instead, most aquifers — including the one below Singleton Station — are made up of many types of deposits and layers.
Water is stored in the pore space of rocks, like pockets of air in Swiss cheese, or in thin cracks between two layers of rock.
These bodies of water may or may not be connected, and water may or may not flow between these deposits.
They might flow under certain conditions and not under others.
Ryan Vogwill is a hydrogeologist who has worked on and off for the WA government since 2003. He was hired by the CLC to assess the water licence application and independently evaluate the aquifer.
“Water moves slowly between parts of an aquifer, and aquifers are very slow to respond to stimuli like extraction or rainfall,” he says.
“It takes time to understand how an aquifer works — you want years and years of data.”
Dr Vogwill has overseen the approval of dozens of water licences in his career, and says he has been working on another project that has 20 years of data to draw from.
“To get to a really high level of understanding, that’s what you need.”
He says it would be unreasonable to expect that much data for Singleton Station.
Data collection for the area is still in its early phases, but Dr Vogwill says thorough water planning requires at least five years of data, preferably 10 years.
He says he believes the project is not safe for the environment because very limited data is available for decision-makers.
The region’s water allocation plan says further work is needed to determine how much water is needed by local ecosystems and groundwater-dependent sacred sites.
This worries Dr Douglas.
“We need a strong and transparent regulatory process based on data-driven scientific assessment of proposals before water licences are granted so future generations can continue to live on country,” she says.
To protect the environment, Fortune Agribusiness must adhere to an adaptive management plan that outlines how and when it will change course to protect the environment, if need be.
The NT’s Water Controller approved the water licence in four stages which get larger over time as the company meets reporting conditions.
But traditional owners remain concerned that by the time the adaptive plan is triggered, it will be too late for the precarious desert environment.
Under the approved licence, a drop in the water table only triggers action if it falls below 15 metres below ground level.
The company’s licence application suggests the project could draw down the aquifer by up to 50 metres.
Senior traditional owner Michael Jones is very concerned about how the project could affect the country around Singleton Station.
Water, he says, is quite literally sacred on this country.
Many of the region’s sacred sites are part of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and are sacred because of the groundwater beneath them.
These sites include trees, bush foods and soaks — where groundwater is so close to the surface, you can dig down less than a metre to collect it.
These sites are traditional locations of camps and ceremonies, and Dreaming tracks linking them have helped people navigate the desert safely for tens of thousands of years.
“Trees are very significant to Aboriginal people because they have water there; in the old days they knew where to get water [because of those trees],” Mr Jones says.
These sites hold more than water — they also hold key cultural knowledge.
Mr Jones says he worries the next generation won’t be able to experience and understand the country the way he has been able to.
“[These sites] are very special to Aboriginal people,” he says.
Traditional owners have raised concerns about how the water licence may impact these sites, but they feel they are not being listened to.
In line with the NT’s Sacred Sites Act, Fortune Agribusiness has obtained a sacred site certificate for the sites on Singleton Station.
The certificates record the location and Dreaming of sites and can be used as evidence in court if a sacred site is destroyed.
According to the CLC, up to 40 sacred sites in the area are part of ecosystems that draw on the aquifer under the Singleton Station water licence.
These sites are outside of the area where a certificate has been issued, meaning they are not protected by it.
By the time Singleton Station’s adaptive management plan is triggered, traditional owners fear sacred sites could already be destroyed.
The NT government’s own water allocation plan, a document used by government to allocate water licences, rates the potential threat to Aboriginal cultural values as “high”.
David Curtis, a traditional owner for country north of Singleton Station, says he feels the country’s future has been uncertain long before Fortune Agribusiness arrived in Central Australia.
“We’ve seen landmark trees dying,” he says.
“There are bush foods that we haven’t seen bear fruit for quite a while now.”
According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), temperatures have risen by 0.4 of a degree every decade since 1970.
“We are definitely being affected by climate change,” Mr Curtis says.
Visiting one of the 40 sacred sites identified by the CLC, he is surprised to find a once-plentiful soak can no longer be reached, even after quite a bit of digging.
Despite rising temperatures, the BOM says there is no discernible trend in the area’s rainfall.
Some years are wetter than others, some years are drier.
But, as the country gets hotter, more water is needed to sustain the environment and Mr Curtis worries about the extra pressure the licence could put on hotter, thirstier ecosystems.
This also concerns Dr Vogwill, who says climate change will affect rainfall in some way, but how exactly remains unknown — there could be more of it, or less of it.
“And without a clear picture, you don’t know how the aquifer will respond,” he says.
Dr Vogwill says the aquifer beneath Singleton Station relies on significant rainfall events to recharge and replenish what has been drained from it.
These events only happen every few years.
“It is important to wait until we’ve had a couple of big rains go through to really be able to understand the response of the aquifer to these big recharge events.”
Traditional owners say they are distressed by how little reassurance they have been given that their sacred sites will be protected.
“We’ve got no control over that; it’s down to a bureaucrat [to decide] who gets the water and who doesn’t.
“That’s a big concern.”
Under the National Water Initiative — a framework for water management agreed to by every state and territory — water users should be charged for ecosystem monitoring, water planning and compliance checks.
But in the Northern Territory, water licences are free.
Melbourne Law School academic and water policy expert Erin O’Donnell says this separates it from every other jurisdiction.
If you want a water licence in New South Wales or Victoria, for example, you pay for the right to extract that water.
But because the user-pays model does not function in the NT, Dr O’Donnell says it means the comprehensive water planning does not happen in turn.
Only 5 per cent of the NT’s groundwater is subject to a water allocation plan, meaning very little is known about it and a similar level of planning exists.
“When you don’t have adequate planning, then you have losers in that system and people feeling like someone else’s interests are being met and not theirs,” Dr O’Donnell says.
“If we do the planning together, then a lot of these conflicts become resolvable.”
She says this lack of collaborative planning explains why the Singleton Station water licence has been approved despite strong community opposition.
Virginia Marshall co-chairs the national Committee on Aboriginal Water Interests and is working to develop a national framework to do just that: make water planning more equitable.
But to do that, she says, a change is needed about how people think about water.
Dr Marshall says Australian legislation only sees water through an economic lens, as a resource for extraction like iron ore.
But water is much more than that, she says.
We need to drink it, we need it for the environment, we need it for recreation, we need it for cultural reasons.
“The criteria for water policy becomes very different when you say, ‘we’re going to apply a cultural lens, we’re going to apply an Indigenous lens, we’re going to apply an environmental lens, we’re going to apply a socially inclusive lens’.”
On a national level she’s advocating for the National Water Initiative to be inclusive of these competing perspectives, not least because climate change will increasingly put pressure on every Australian’s water security.
“For Indigenous peoples who are the most impoverished in Australia, water security is one of the key issues brought about by climate change, but it will be an issue for all Australians.”
After the water licence was approved, multiple stakeholders, including the CLC and the NT Environment Centre, wrote to the NT government requesting a review.
That review was held in early September and allowed objectors to present their concerns to a panel of independent groundwater experts.
The panel is due to report to the Environment Minister, Eva Lawler, on October 15.
Ms Lawler can choose to maintain or vary the licence decision.
“The Territory government is developing a long-term, comprehensive strategic water plan to ensure the sustainable management of our water resources, and that water is available for drinking, growing and making valuable products,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“Water is a critical issue for the Territory’s future.”
Fortune Agribusiness chief executive Peter Wood says the company will not comment while the licence review is underway.
“We are hopeful that the Minister can advise her decision some time in November.”
In a previous statement, Mr Wood said the company was “keen to work with traditional owners and to have them engaged as part of our environmental management regime”.
He also said that Fortune would work with traditional owners “in the development of a successful project that supports their aspirations and addresses their concerns”.
Steve Edgington, the Member for Barkly, and the NT Farmers Association also declined to comment while the review is underway.
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