The Roper River will “go away,” traditional owners say, as the government considers a massive water allocation

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As distressed traditional owners in central Australia struggle to get the NT’s largest groundwater license approved at Singleton Station, further north Aboriginal elders and pastoralists prepare for another battle over a valuable resource.

Mining company Australian Ilmenite Resources (AIR) plans to extract 3.3 billion liters (3,300 ml) of water each year – about 20 times what the entire NT population consumes – from the Roper River for its mine, which is located located about 100 kilometers east of Mataranka.

The water application is currently being checked by the NT Water Controller amid a wave of opposition and calls to reject the license.

Among them is Caroline Bulabul, a traditional owner, artist and the daughter of the late Sammy Bulabul who was one of them three Native Title holders were tried by AIR in 2018 for their refusal to allow access to the River Roper for the construction of a pipeline needed to extract water for a dam.

After a string of record dry years in 2018 and 2019, Ms Bulabul said she was concerned about the river’s “disappearance”.

“We were there as children, our father took us for four weeks during the school holidays,” she said.

“We had to live off this water to survive.”

The Roper River flows freely from the head of its drainage basin to the sea, sustaining numerous wetlands, river systems, and springs.(Delivered: Krystle Wright)

The Roper River is the second largest river in the Territory, with headwaters reaching north into Arnhem Land and south into the drier expanses of the Beetaloo Basin.

Today it is still the lifeblood of the indigenous communities it flows through.

“It gives us so much food… we use it for fishing, Bush Tucker, we use the lilies to make flour,” Ms. Bulabul said.

AIR received approval from the NT Environmental Protection Agency to begin mining in 2012 while using only half the amount of water now requested.

It entered receiver management in 2014 and not long after it was purchased by Roper Resources.

Production quietly restarted in mid-2017 and the first exports were shipped overseas.

The company said it hopes to produce 100,000 to 120,000 tons of ilmenite each year and needs additional water to do so.

However, in its filing, AIR acknowledged that “the ability to predict the potential impacts…is very limited” because “a detailed water assessment of water availability has not been conducted as part of a water allocation plan.”

Despite the doubling of water needs, the NT Environmental Protection Agency said AIR does not have to return its plans for assessment provided “the mining operations are consistent with the assessed project.”

But rising elder Winston Thompson said it was a “major concern”.

He said traditional owners and residents in the communities lining the banks of the river have been largely left in the dark and no negotiations or consultations have taken place.

“We want proper research done first and an environmental impact study done,” he said.

“We don’t have an answer, but proper research would help traditional owners make decisions.”

Big River station owner Daniel Tapp at the protest on horseback
Former resident and pastoralist Daniel Tapp has spent years protesting major oil and gas companies.(ABC News: Jano Gibson )

Pastoralist Daniel Tapp said it was important that the iconic river be protected.

“We don’t know if there is enough water, but still water-intensive industries like mining, gas, cotton and industrial agriculture are lining up to take water for profit.

“I’m not against the industry, but we have to make sure it’s sustainable development.”

dr Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Environment Center NT, said granting the license without an updated environmental impact assessment was “foolish”.

A bespectacled woman stands in a leafy Darwin backyard, looking slightly worried.
Kirsty Howey says she would like to see proper community consultation alongside current science to ensure rivers are protected.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“Ngukurr is downstream of this particular proposal but has faced a lot of water insecurity over the years,” she said.

“And if that affects those rivers, you risk endangering Ngukurr’s drinking water.”

A spokeswoman for NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler said that all decisions related to water are backed by science.

Holy sites dependent on the river

Bradley Farrar, a clan chief of the Alawa tribe, said he was torn about the water application.

While working as a truck driver at the mine last year, he actively campaigned against oil and gas companies planning to frack the Beetaloo Basin.

He also said a number of sacred sites dependent on the river are at stake.

“Under the water is a big bark, it’s been there for hundreds of years and it’s a detailed history of my mother’s totem,” he said.

He said he felt like he was “double dipping”.

“On the one hand I want to go back and work in the mine, it’s the only way to make money, but on the other hand I have to protect the country,” Mr Farrar said.

Benedict Scambary, head of AAPA, in his office.
Benedict Scambary says all sacred sites are protected by the NT Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act.(ABC News: Matt Garrick)

The CEO of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA), Dr. Ben Scambary said while certificates of authority for water harvesting licenses are not mandatory, AIR does have a certificate for registered sacred sites on the mine lease.

Last month, documents obtained by the ABC showed that AAPA had serious concerns about the safety of nearly 100 sacred sites around Singleton Station in central Australia because their regulatory certification failed to account for the impact on water levels.

“Authority certificates are a risk management tool [and] … provide statutory relief from prosecution under the Sacred Sites Act in relation to works provided the applicant meets all conditions imposed to protect sacred sites,” said Dr. scam.

“Water management system defective”

After 25 years of flying hundreds of miles to study the NT’s water systems, it is the Roper River that Professor Sue Jackson of Griffith University’s Australian Rivers Institute knows best.

A woman with dark hair smiles at the camera.
Professor Sue Jackson says governments must issue water licenses based on “robust scientific evidence”.
(delivered)

For years she conducted research on the social and cultural significance of the upper Roper River for the Mataranka water distribution plan, which a decade later is still ongoing.

In the absence of this, she said, there is no telling whether or not AIR’s water application will have seismic effects.

But of even greater concern is the failure to establish area-wide water allocation plans, she said, which have been a key catalyst for Aboriginal Strategic Water Reserves (SAWRs).

In the Northern Territory, 95 percent of the jurisdictions do not have a water distribution plan.

“We are really critical of the failure of the planning process because it allows the government to distribute water to all these industrial parties without having to consider the impact on Aboriginal people and the opportunities for them to benefit,” Professor Jackson said said.

Erin O’Donnell of the Center for Resource, Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Melbourne agreed, saying the decisions were “an indication of systemic racism”.

“The reason I think you can say that in the case of the Northern Territory is because they have a law on the books that says they have to allocate water to Aboriginal people,” she said.

“So if they don’t invest enough in the water planning process, it means they will never fulfill their commitment to provide a strategic water reservoir for Aboriginal people.”

Water in the NT remains free

Despite heavy criticism, Dr. O’Donnell that a small solution could make big strides – water charges.

It’s already a requirement under the National Water Initiative, said Dr. O’Donnell, but the dissolution of the national body responsible for oversight in 2014 meant there was less scope to hold individual states and territories accountable.

She said putting a price tag on water could be used for further studies mapping sustainable water distribution.

Caroline Bulabul shared the sentiment.

“The mining mob doesn’t pay rent … but if they did, we could put that money back into helping the country,” she said.

The ABC contacted AIR for comment but received no response.

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