More than 50 lawyers and academics have signed an open letter urging the federal government to acknowledge and safeguard First Nations water rights in upcoming changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

There are 40 First Nations groups in the basin who own just 0.17 per cent of the water that flows through the more than one million square kilometres it covers.

The letter criticises a ‘persistent and notable failure’ to acknowledge Indigenous rights and interests in water laws and policies.

It comes as the federal government’s amendments to the basin plan are set to be debated in the Senate this week.

Water lawyer and open letter signatory Dr Emma Carmody says it’s time for the government to stop kicking the can down the road.

“The Bill that is currently before Parliament is a tangible opportunity to finally begin to address Indigenous water dispossession and injustice in the Basin, including by implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Australian Parliament has an opportunity, right now, to demonstrate its commitment to addressing the rights and interests of the Basin’s 40 plus First Nations. Reform at the national level would also send a strong signal to all states and territories to follow suite and take meaningful steps to address Indigenous water injustice in their respective jurisdictions.”

The letter has been welcomed by MLDRIN, a self-determined, First Nation’s owned organization representing traditional owners within the southern Murray Darling Basin.

MLDRIN chairperson Grant Rigney said “I am buoyed by the support of so many legal practitioners and academics. They say what we already know. The Water Act (2007) and the Restoring our Rivers Bill, fails to recognise our rights as First Nations people. Now is the time for the Senate to right the wrongs of the original Act.”