Indigenous engagement in Australian mine water management: The alignment of corporate strategies with national water reform objectives
In the mineral rich but arid Pilbara region of Western Australia, managing water constraints represents a significant challenge to the mining sector where local depletion is a growing problem. Conversely, the expansion of pit dewatering is creating surface water excess in localised areas of potentially high social and ecological significance. Indigenous people are by far the longest term residents of the Pilbara region and express a range of strong concerns about past, current and future water-related developments in the area. They also have proprietary interests in water recognised by the common law and protected by federal native title legislation. Rio Tinto Iron Ore (RTIO), commissioned the authors to undertake research to improve corporate understanding of Indigenous interests in water and to provide advice on its consultation processes. We argue here that a more sophisticated account of Indigenous water values is a necessary but, on its own, insufficient measure to achieve RTIO’s desired long-term goals. We suggest an equivalent process of understanding and documenting corporate water values and interests, actions to improve trust and credibility in the relationship between the parties, and leadership in wider catchment management as necessary complementary actions. These actions follow logically from internal corporate commitments regarding water and Indigenous people and from recognition of their property rights, but also align directly with major trends in the National Water Initiative, the key water policy framework for Australia. Therefore significant synergies exist between internal corporate aspirations, the evolving legal regime, and wider governance agendas for a key limiting resource. Our analysis is relevant to a range of CSR and water resource contexts across the wider mining sector.
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