Water: A Contested Resource in the Great Artesian Basin

Hannah Min


BHP that they foster healthy Indigenous relations and commit to water conservation on their website. What is not stated is that they draw an estimated total of 41 million liters of water from the basin free of charge through a loophole called the Indenture Act of 1982. This act overrides many Indigenous and environmental conservation acts in place in the area for the protection of the surrounding community and environment. Their basis of operation is hypocritical, because they claim to do the right things through PR lingo but do the opposite behind the legal walls of their operations.



The Great Artesian Basin, a basin located in Queensland, Australia, has a long and rich history with its local indigenous population, including the Aboriginals, who have used and fostered a relationship with this particular basin, revolving their daily lives around their environment. But in the Great Artesian Basin, the company BHP, a mining company who owns numerous mining companies within basin, draws a volume of up to 41 million volumes of water daily at no cost.

You may wonder how is that possible? What forces are in play that create this environmental conflict? In this podcast, I will be analyzing the claim that BHP makes for fostering healthy Indigenous relations in the Great Artesian Basin and water conservation.

To start off, let’s go over the context behind the Great Artesian Basin and why it is so important. In the article “Oases to Oblivion: The Rapid Demise of Springs in the South-Eastern Great Artesian Basin, Australia”, Powell states “Water percolates slowly through the sandstone aquifer and groundwater in the furthest extremities from the intake beds have been dated from 200,00 to more than 1 million years”.

The water supply found in the basin has an ecological history and has been a significant part of Queensland, Australia. With that said, the Great Artesian Basin fuels the water in many mining operations in coal and coal seam gas. One of these many operations is in the Olympic Dam, which is managed by the company BHP. BHP states on their main website that they use the water drawn from the basin to fuel mining processes such as smeltering, mining, and acid plants found within the vicinity.

What’s problematic with their operations is that while they may find that the high usage of water is convenient for their business and operations, the basin itself has a long history with the Indigenous population in the surrounding area, especially the Aboriginal population. These populations depend on the water for drinking water and other daily activities such as fishing, cleaning, and etc.

They also have a long-standing relationship with the basin in a holistic manner. In the article “Indigenous People’s Connection with KWATYE (Water) in the Great Artesian Basin”, Ah Chee states “For this water is a source of healing when we are sick, and it provides us with many spiritual and cultural interests. For it is our lifeblood which we need to survive.” They see the water that is found within the Great Artesian Basin as something that is sacred, and more than just a resource that brings in the money.

Because of the differing viewpoints, there has been a long-standing conflict between the Aboriginals and BHP, which is something that can be attributed to the role of the environment and its different contexts.

For example, BHP views the environment in more of an instrumental way of thinking, seeing the environment as only a resource that is available for use in an unlimited fashion. This can be exhibited in the way that they talk about the environment and water stewardship, chalking up a solution to the issue of water use on the fact that they reuse some of their water during their operations such as drawdown, etc.

As BHP states on their website, “Effective and appropriate water stewardship at Olympic Dam is not only essential to BHP’s mine’s operation, but for its long-term sustainability and contribution to social value.” As exhibited from this statement, the main idea of this sentence is that they need the water as a resource, and nothing more significant than that.

This directly contradicts the role of the environment through the perspective of the Indigenous community, in particular the Aboriginals. They view the environment as its certain entity, and the water has more properties than just as a resource. Examples of this include the fact that they consider water to be healing. In general, the environment shows a more holistic role in their daily lives, on top of providing for their daily drinking water and other habits of their daily lives.

A huge aspect of this environmental geopolitical issue is the role of human agencies that fuel this conflict. There are many involved, including the company BHP, the Aboriginals, and other environmental conservation agencies that are actively fighting against the contention of water usage in the area. It is well known that the water supply found within the Great Artesian basin is shrinking at a fast rate. With this said, that water supply is growing smaller quickly, which is mostly spurred by the amount of water taken out.

As stated in the article “True cost of coal: coal mining industry and its associated environmental impacts on water resource development”, Masood states “The hydrological consequences of coal mining are significant and complex, as mining can lower water tables, disturbing natural drainage patterns, and can cause surface and sub-surface aqueous contamination”. This ecological disturbance causes a great source of conflict within the given area. For example, the complaints of the surrounding Indigenous communities are growing bigger and bigger as more and more water gets taken, and the water left gets contaminated with chemical byproducts from operations.

In the article “BHP risks Indigenous heritage, workers and the environment”, Noonan states “BHP is putting cultural heritage and potentially the lives of workers at risk and exposing the environment to devastation. All aided by the law and the Coalition government…”. BHP can operate at lower costs due to the act called the Indenture Act of 1982, which is an act that “takes precedence over” important Indigenous and environmental conservation acts, including the Mining Act of 1971, Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1988, Environmental Protection Act of 1993, and the Natural Resources Management Act of 2004.

With legal lingo aside, this act basically gives the company free reign over the water in the area, and there are plans for more rights to water in the works. This has been one of the leading causes of the issues that the Indigenous and environmental communities has had with the company, believing that there needs to be change with how much free control BHP has over the area.

A portion of the concern in their activity is how their influence on the area will have possible unknown negative effects in the future. In the article “Regional-scale modeling and predictive uncertainty analysis of cumulative groundwater impacts from coal seam gas and coal mining developments”, Sreekanth states “As coal mining and CSG development involves extraction of large quantities of groundwater, it is important to undertake predictive assessment of individual and cumulative impacts of such resource development projects”. It is unknown just how much impact that the activities of BHP’s operations will have in the future, but it is known how much individuals, including Indigenous and other populations in the area, rely on the water supplied by the basin for daily activities and a fresh source of drinking water.

To summarize, the role of human agency in this environmental geopolitical conflict can be traced back to human-made legality systems and the conflicting sides of different stances on the issue of water at the basin.

To conclude, I will state just how far the scope of the activities at the Great Artesian Basin could have. At a first glance, it may seem that the contamination and drainage of the basin will stay within the dam, but it is a well-known fact that waterway systems are all interconnected in some way, whether it is through the water cycle, distribution systems, or flow. The article “Spring wetlands of the Great Artesian Basin, Queensland, Australia” states “Wetlands fed by subterranean waters through natural springs occur in Australia and are recognized as a distinct wetland type” (Fensham, 343). Wetlands are interconnected with many kinds of waterways, whether its above ground or below ground, the water in these bodies tend to disperse easily across long spatial scales.

I previously stated that a huge consequence of BHP’s mining activities is contamination through their chemical waste and byproducts of their daily productions. This contamination has a very high possibility of reaching many other areas other than just the Olympic Dam, just about anywhere that the water can travel. The implications of this are very high. As stated by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water by the Australian Government, “Basin water wastage also damages the environment through reduced pressure in some naturally occurring artesian springs, encouragement of the spread of pest plants and animals, and land and water salinization”.

The scale of the issue is not just impactful of other human activity on the area, but also includes great ecological consequences that can worsen the daily lives of Indigenous and surrounding populations in the area.

In conclusion, the issue of water at the Great Artesian Basin is an environmental geopolitical issue that spreads across many different areas, including the conflicting role of the environment, the involvement of many kinds of human agencies, and across a vast spatial scale. I hope this podcast served to provide insight into the situation occurring in Queensland, Australia area, and I hope that updates on this situation are in a positive light. In the meantime, I hope a takeaway from this story is to consider deeply about where water comes from, and the implications of that, which is more broad than one may realize.


Ah Chee, Dean. “Indigenous People’s Connection with KWATYE (Water) in the Great Artesian Basin”. Global Wellness Institute.: 1-6. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2014-Indigenous-People-Connection-with-Kwatye-Dean-Ah-Chee.pdf

BHP. 2022. “Water stewardship at Olympic Dam”. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://www.bhp.com/news/case-studies/2019/09/water-stewardship-at-olympic-dam

Conservation Council SA, Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth Australia. 2019. BHP Legal Privileges in the Olympic Dam Indenture Act 1982 Override SA Laws. https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/ODM-BHP-legal-privileges-Indenture-Act.pdf

Great Artesian Basin. “Australian Government, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water”. Accessed October 30th, 2022. https://www.dcceew.gov.au/water/policy/national/great-artesian-basin#:~:text=Uncontrolled%20water%20flow%20from%20bores,Basin%20to%20access%20groundwater%20resources.

Powell, Owen. “Oases to Oblivion: The Rapid Demise of Springs in the South-Eastern Great Artesian Basin, Australia, Groundwater. 53: 171-178. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwat.12147

Noonan, David. 2020. “BHP risks Indigenous heritage, workers, and the environment”. MichaelWestMedia. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://michaelwest.com.au/bhp-cultural-heritage-risk/

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sreekanth, J. “Regional-scale modelling and predictive uncertainty analysis of cumulative groundwater impacts from coal seam gas and coal mining developments.” Hydrogeology Journal, pages 1-26.


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