Pastoralists and traditional owners meet NT environment minister over water security fears

In this tight circle, one common concern has brought everyone together: water and the concern it’s in jeopardy.

Collectively these representatives travelled thousands of kilometres from right across the Northern Territory to the small town of Mataranka, just over 400 kilometres south-east of the Territory’s capital Darwin.

They are here to have their voices heard.

Simone Baker, a resident of the remote community of Jilkminggan is one of the representatives.

“I’m very concerned about water, especially the Roper River because the amount of water that’s getting pumped out has seen it drop so much over the last 10 years,” Ms Baker said.

“If you go out to jungle on Elsey Station, you can actually see the clear lines on the riverbank where the water used to be and where it’s not at the moment.

A woman wearing a yellow shirt folds her arms and looks straight at the camera with a smile.
Ms Baker says she fears for the future of her children. (ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Her concerns were echoed around the group, ahead of what the majority believed might be one of the only chances to be heard by the government.

Anger over lack of community involvement

This week, pastoralists, traditional owners, tourism operators and concerned citizens joined forces and called a meeting with the Northern Territory’s new Environment and Water Security Minister, Lauren Moss.

Amid a big push to develop the Northern Territory, fears over water security and aquifer mining are growing.

Controversial and long-delayed water allocation plans — for the Mataranka region and the Beetaloo Basin — are being finalised by the government, as massive water licences are handed out for free.

A blonde woman wearing glasses points to a map in a circle of people.
Dr Phelan, says they need true representative water-allocation committees.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

“There is a rush to set things up to open production in the Beetaloo [Basin], and I think that rush might mean that science is not adhered to properly or digested properly,” Sam Phelan, a key organiser of the meeting, said.

Dr Phelan said people were becoming incensed over being excluded from decisions that had far-reaching consequences.

“There were pastoralists saying the same thing. We need true representative water-allocation committees.

“We need science, and we need to inform the plans with that science.”

A drone image of the remote community Mataranka in the Northern Territory.
The town of Mataranka is located about 400 kilometres south-east of Darwin. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Maureen O’Keefe travelled more than 700km from the remote NT community of Ali Carung – to attend the meeting.

She said water was scarce in her desert community.

Ms O’Keefe said the precious resource had become even more precarious after the Northern Territory’s largest-ever groundwater licence was handed to Fortune Agribusiness.

They have plans to develop a food bowl on Singleton Station, taking water from the aquifer Ms O’Keefe relies on.

“The only drinkable water we have is the water underground because the other water has been contaminated … from cattle,” she said.

“We want to save the water for the future generations.

A man wearing a hat and a white check shirt looks past the camera under a blue sky, green trees in the background.
Mr Tapp says water allocation plans are too important to rush.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)
Daniel Tapp, a pastoralist, who owns land in the Beetaloo Basin, said he was concerned about the government over allocating aquifers so that big industries could prosper. 

Mr Tapp said he feared that aquifer mining — which happens when water is taken from an aquifer at a rate that exceeds that of natural recharge — would become a more prominent issue in the Top End as the government sought to apply arid zone rules further north.

Only 17 people were permitted to attend the closed meeting with government representatives and Ms Moss, the Environment and Water Security Minister, on Thursday.

“It has to be based on a sustainable system.”

Other key demands include the establishment of water-allocation committees and widespread community consultation.

A wide of the Beetaloo Basin landscape with trees and wetlands.
The Beetaloo Basin is being pegged as a future hub of Australian gas production.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

“There were traditional owners here that have science that goes back 20,000 years,Dr Phelan said.

“Now that science and observation of 20,000 years cannot be ignored, and at the moment, those voices are not at the table.

“That is a fundamental deficit.”

‘Continuous conversations’ important

A serious-looking woman looking at the camera while crossing her arms and leaning on a balcony railing.
Ms Moss says she too wants to protect NT waters.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Ms Moss said the meeting was a good opportunity to hear people’s concerns.

She said her main takeaway from the day was the importance of a “continuous conversation” and providing people with “broad opportunities to have their say”.

Ms Moss did not make any commitments on the day but acknowledged the importance of community consultation.

“We have a strategic water directions paper coming out. It’s going to set the long-term strategy around water in the Northern Territory.

“Water pricing is something that is being explored and looked at. I’ll be looking at the really tangible recommendations that come out of that and making sure that we’re acting on them.” 

A group of people sit on chairs in a circle in Mataranka.
Northern Territory residents say there is a lack of community consultation. (ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Ms Baker said she hoped to see meaningful change.

“[Mismanagement] is going to affect us. It’s going to affect our way of living. It’s going to affect the future way of living.

“I just hope [the minister] listens and takes it into consideration.”