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The cultural value of water

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Aboriginal fish trap by Jacqui BadlandAboriginal fish trap by Jacqui Badland“We (Aboriginal people) come from the land and we belong to the land”  (Anonymous comment from ‘Feedback from Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) information session’ on the Basin Plan, Oct 2010, Murray Darling Basin Authority).

As the driest inhabited continent, the rivers of Australia have been the focal point of life for up to 60,000 years, playing an important role in Aboriginal social life and identity. By changing how, when, and where rivers flow, water resource development has affected the way Aboriginal communities interact with the landscape.

Despite this, there is little Indigenous participation in water planning and management as well as limited capacity and understanding within water agencies about rights or values. In 2009, Jackson and Robinson (Report for the Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review) explained that: ‘Indigenous  rights  and  interests  in  water  governance  and  management  have  been  neglected  in  Australia. This  is  reflected  in  low  rates  of  Indigenous  access  to  water,  participation  in  water  management  institutions  and  Indigenous  awareness  of  water  reform  objectives  and  processes.’

A 2010 CSIRO Scoping Study for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority looked at the effects of changes in water availability on the people of the Murray-Darling Basin (Jackson, Moggridge and Robinson 2010). One of the main problems, they found, is a lack of baseline information. Limited knowledge exists around how water is used or valued by Indigenous people and, hence, how to explicitly consider the water requirements of indigenous people who are likely to be competing with other water users.

There is diversity in how water is used and valued by indigenous people across the basins of Australia. There are multiple and interrelated interests and sources of attachment to rivers, water and the environment.

For Indigenous people, water is an intricate part of the landscape that holds vast social, cultural and economic importance; its value is intangible. It is not easy to marry this with the quantitatively-focused western style of natural resource management which tends to separate components of the landscape into ‘silos’.

A two-way approach is needed.

Wagiman Traditional Owners researching the Daly Catchment. Image by Michael Douglas,TRaCK CERFWagiman Traditional Owners researching the Daly Catchment. Image by Michael Douglas,TRaCK CERFInstitutional challenges

The National Water Initiative in 2004 was the first Australian water policy to recognise the special nature of Indigenous interests in water and Native Title rights to its use. The second biennial assessment of the NWI in 2009 did find, however, that it was still “rare for Indigenous water requirements to be explicitly included in water sharing plans” and that it “…appears often to be implicitly assumed that these objectives, where considered at all, can be met by rules-based environmental water provisions.”

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), has weighed in on this lack of progress, commenting that: “Although the NWI has made an effort to incorporate Indigenous interests, there has been little progress in addressing Indigenous water requirements in allocation plans. NWI provisions…are very flexible and there is a risk that Indigenous objectives could be sidelined by other competing priorities.”

In effect, the policy framework is in place but the ‘infrastructure’ to support the realisation of this is poorly developed (Jackson, 2009).

The next steps

The third biennial assessment of the NWI is due in mid 2011 and the National Water Commission has now established an advisory body; ‘First People’s Water Engagement Council’. Its members, including the CSIRO’s first Indigenous Water Research Specialist Bradley Moggridge, will be working to better incorporate Indigenous views and interests into water planning. The council is also providing oversight to the ‘Indigenous water characteristics’ project for the NWC which will develop a series of think pieces and options papers throughout the year.

Case studies

It is still early days in the formal recognition of Indigenous water rights.  Native title law recognises non-exclusive rights for water for personal and domestic purposes (Jackson et al 2010) but the difficulty of obtaining Native Title is a major limitation. In the Murray-Darling Basin, for example, Aboriginal people have ownership or rights over just 0.2 per cent of the land, despite making up almost four per cent of the population (HREOC Report, 2008).

Aboriginal people have a wealth of knowledge around managing water resources within the Australian landscape and have much to offer in land and water planning and management.

There are emerging examples across Australia that are providing valuable insight.
The Narri Narri Tribal Council and the Murrumbidgee Cultural Access Licence

The Narri Narri Tribal Council is a not-for-profit Indigenous environmental conservation organisation managing 11,300 ha along the Murrumbidgee River near Hay, NSW. Itswork, as described by Jackson, Moggridge and Robinson (2010, CSIRO), has seen $1.2 million worth of cultural site protection, revegetation, bank stabilisation and water efficiency completed since 2000. This includes preservation of the culturally significant Toogimbie wetlands.

The council uses utilise native title holder provisions under the Murrumbidgee Water Sharing Plan and obtains water through several licences, including a Cultural Access Licence which is a high security allocation for cultural and recreational use.
Despite the clear public good, memberspay an estimated $16,000/year for water; $30/ML for pumping, plus licence and other fees (Jackson, Tan, Altman, 2009). A lot of time and effort also goes into working within the regulatory system with its administrative complexities. To subsidise this cost, Council leases several general security irrigation licences to a neighbouring farmer.

A portion of the allocation for the Cultural Access Licence, which cannot be carried over, remains unused each year. Jackson, Moggridge and Robinson (CSIRO, 2010) attribute this to: the availability of infrastructure, the cost and administrative complexity around accessing water, and a lack of awareness of this program in the wider Indigenous community.

“When we do have access to cultural flows (in NSW); how can we get the water out of the river to utilize it?” commented one participant at the MLDRIN Basin Plan information session (Oct 2010). “You need infrastructure/pumps etc.; where can we access funds to build infrastructure to remove the water if we do get licences? Most communities wouldn’t have the funds to purchase pumps; it’s not just about getting water licences, it’s also about how you physically access it and use it.”

The NSW Office of Water is developing a new model for the Cultural Access licence that considers the issues around access and cost. The Murrumbidgee CMA is also reviewing a proposal for better engaging Aboriginal people in the water allocation process. This would seek to improve the links between the allocation of ‘cultural’ and ‘environmental’ water, and the transparency of prioritisation and management decisions.

The North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA)

NAILSMA has been working with the Australian government on two key water initiatives that work in parallel: the Indigenous Water Policy Group (IWPG) and the Indigenous Community Water Facilitator Network (ICWFN).

The Indigenous Water Policy Group (IWPG) is an initiative funded by the National Water Commission that aims to deliver Indigenous community interests in legal rights and water markets. This is backed by an ‘Indigenous Community Water Facilitator Network’ program employing regionally based ‘facilitators’ for communicating with, training, educating and engaging Indigenous people in the management of tropical rivers.  

Indigenous Partnerships Program

An Indigenous Partnerships Project emerged in 2006 from the Living Murray Initiative as joint project between the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (then the Murray-Darling Basin Commission). The aim was to facilitate Aboriginal people’s input in environmental management plans for each of the Murray icon sites.

The Partnerships project has seen local indigenous facilitators placed at each of the Murray icon sites and the roll-out of ‘cultural mapping’ exercises. Cultural mapping - or ‘use-and-occupancy mapping’ - is a technique based on a Canadian method that combines oral history records with land use and occupancy mapping. MLDRIN is using this to monitor and evaluate impacts (Jackson, Moggridge and Robinson 2010).
Neil Ward, responsible for managing the Indigenous Partnerships Program with the MDBA, explains its use (Jackson et al 2010):

‘….It was thought that, in a practical way, use-and-occupancy mapping could firmly establish indigenous people in the contemporary landscape by documenting in tangible terms the many ways in which indigenous communities currently use the land….The potential for use-and-occupancy mapping to help indigenous leaders articulate how they would like to see land and water managed to meet their future social, environmental, spiritual and economic aspirations was also recognised….’

In 2008, Ward provided further insight into the value of this tool: “An Indigenous elder once told me that a reconciled Australia will only come out of respect for each other’s cultures. I am optimistic that Use and Occupancy mapping can play a role in developing mutual understanding and respect as well as being an excellent tool for Indigenous communities in negotiating management of natural resources in the Murray-Darling Basin.” (‘Connections’ newsletter, August, 08, Issue 14, CSU, Institute for Land, Water and Society:

In 2009, the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) was established in Moree as a confederation of 21 Nations in the northern part of the Murray Darling Basin. Like MLDRIN, NBAN advocate for the right of Indigenous people to be part of the water market and of natural resource management decisions within the Basin.

“Water issues are important issues for us. We are interested in how water allocation and water markets are going to roll out over the country. ..When we hear different processes from the State Government, the Federal Government, and NAILSMA, Traditional owners get confused – it divides us….We have our own way of engaging with each other. We need government people who understand indigenous processes. They need to come and learn from our process. Once they have learnt and tapped into that, then they can do things the right way: going out on country, listening to old people’s stories….” (17/3/2011).
A Water Story collected as part of the Indigenous Community Water Facilitator Network (NAILSMA). Ron Archer, a Djungan Elder, commenting in the Upper Mitchell River Traditional Owner’s submission to the National Water Commission.
References and further Reading:

Jackson, S., Moggridge, B., and C.J. Robinson. 2010. Effects of changes in water availability on Indigenous people of the Murray-Darling Basin: a Scoping study. CSIRO Water for a Healthy Country: Report to the Murray Darling Basin Authority. Full report:
First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council. National Water Commission.

North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Jackson, S (CSIRO), Storrs, M., Wohling, M., Liddy, M., Jackson, D., McKaige, B. Land & Water Australia Project Reference No. CSE26. Addressing Indigenous Cultural Values in Water Allocation Planning. Sue Jackson CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. Report prepared 15/05/2006.

Case Study 2: Murray-Darling Basin. Native Title Report, 2008. Human Rights Commission.

Jackson, S. National Indigenous Water Planning Forum: Background paper on Indigenous participation in water planning and access to water. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. A report prepared for the National Water Commission, February 2009.  

Durette, M. Indigenous Freshwater Rights in Settler Countries. Knowledge notes, Synexe Consulting, 2006-2007.
Indigenous Participation in water planning and management. Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review – full report. October 2009. North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Jackson, S. and Robinson, C. Indigenous participation in water planning and management. Northern Australia Land and Water Science Review; full report. October 2009. 

Jackson, S. (CSIRO), Ling Tan, P. (Griffith University), Altman, J. (ANU). 2009. Indigenous Fresh Water Planning Forum: Proceedings, Outcomes and Recommendations. March 2009. National Water Commission.

First Peoples’ Water Engagement Council.

Durette, M. 2010. An Integrative model for cultural flows: Using values in fisheries to determine water allocations. Working paper 2010/01. Synexe Consulting.

Durette, M. 2008. Indigenous legal rights to freshwater: Australia in the International Context. The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), ANU. Commissioned by the Indigenous Water Policy Group (IWPG), North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA). 

Indigenous Water Policy Group and Indigenous Community Water Facilitator Network information retrieved from North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, website:

‘New body gives Indigenous people a say on water rights.’ 2nd Feb, 2011.

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