An anthropological survey commissioned by the Central Land Council has revealed that the drawdown area of the Northern Territory’s largest water licence is home to dozens of groundwater-dependent sacred sites that the licence puts at great risk.

The country around Singleton Station, where the NT Government plans to gift Fortune Agriculture 40,000 mega litres of water per year for 30 years to grow export crops, is rich in songlines and Aboriginal cultural sites that depend on underground water for their very survival.

More than 80 traditional owners, native title holders and affected remote community residents spent much of June visiting the region south of Tennant Creek with independent anthropologist Susan Dale Donaldson and identified 29 different groundwater-dependent sacred sites and related dreaming tracks that would be threatened by the massive water licence. 

The named sites include waterholes, soakages, springs, and sacred trees across the Singleton and Neutral Junction stations and the Warrabri and Iliyarne Aboriginal land trusts.

“Our people are responsible for the protection of the places that embody the Dreaming. Damaging these sites that represent their deceased ancestors threatens their spiritual wellbeing and their vital cultural connection to their country,” CLC chief executive Les Turner said.

“That’s why we urge the NT water security minister to take the findings of the survey very seriously as she reviews the controversial water licence decision.”

The survey participants worry desperately about how the sheer scale of the planned water extraction will affect their rights to hunt and collect bush foods and medicine, develop their country and teach their next generations.

“There is a lot of Ngappa Wirnkarna (Rain Dreaming) around the Singleton area. Karlu Karlu (the Devils Marbles), Wakurlpu, Warlaparnpa – all these places were made by Nappa Wirnkarra, all these places will be affected if there is no water,” traditional owner Michael Jones said.

“The story will be there, still alive, the song will be there and still be sung, but we will be sad when we go to that place all dead. The story will be weaker for younger people because the places will be ruined.

“We take them to soakages that are gone and to country that is sick. We have lost other soakages when they put in bores.”

Although the region’s water allocation plan highlights the lack of knowledge about Aboriginal cultural values in the drawdown area as an “extreme” risk, the licence conditions the NT imposed on the company don’t include the need to protect Aboriginal cultural sites.

Sacred site clearance work has only been carried out around the 3,500 hectare area on the cattle station that would be cleared for export crops, but the drawdown area that would be impacted by the unprecedented volume of the water extraction is five times that size.

Mr Turner said the CLC commissioned the survey of the drawdown area because the NT failed to carry out a baseline assessment of cultural values on which the company would base its so-called adaptive management plan.

“We had absolutely no confidence that this critically important survey work would be done in time and to a rigorous standard because the government is clearly only paying lip service to the rights and interests of remote community residents and traditional owners,” he said.

“Remember, the decision to grant the licence is not based on solid scientific data but on mere guesswork and if the modelling turns out to be even slightly wrong, those sites are in mortal danger.

“If there is even a small drop in the water table, our soakages will disappear for good, our springs will dry up and our animals will die along with our trees.”

“By the time we see any warning signs, by the time stands of sacred trees that are part of a songline begin to look sick, it is already be too late because the changes are irreversible,” said Mr Turner.

Survey participants also reported feeling disempowered by the water licence decision, with David Curtis saying that extracting water from the desert “makes no sense. We can’t be certain it can be recharged and rain is not as reliable as it used to be”.

“I can’t believe the government did this. Aboriginal people should have control over water, it is part of our country. We thought we had land rights but what good is land without water?” Mr Curtis said.

Maureen O’Keefe, who grew up in the drawdown area, told Ms Dale Donaldson: “We know what’s about to happen, there is about to be a water crisis. We have to stop it before it happens.”

12 August 2021

For a summary of the survey report please go to and contact us for images.