Water: Meaning and management

What does water mean to Aboriginal people? Learn about cultural water and flows.

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Meaning of water

Phil Duncan, chair of the First Peoples' Water Engagement Council, explains Aboriginal connections with water.

"We have this relationship, this invisible connection to water, with spirit, culture, songlines, our dreaming,” he said. “Rivers form tribal boundaries, are travel highways and provide food. Fish have different totemic value for different peoples, for example the eastern cod has great significance for the Ballina, Tabulam and Baryulgil mobs, and so does the turtle."

Researching this invisible connection is hard, Duncan says, as there is little understanding in the wider community and Aboriginal people are telling their story, songline and connection to others.

Some Aboriginal people believe that the first rain after a long drought "washes the sickness away" and it is unsafe to swim in that water. Only after the "second rain" is safe to go to the water hole.

The biggest mistake ever was when we separated water from the land.

— Paul Maytom, Mayor of Leeton, Riverina region, NSW

Water rights

Water is also important to Aboriginal people as a resource for environmental, social, cultural and economic purposes. Water rights can help communities with these activities.

But the vast majority of Australia's water market is outside their control. In 2018, only 0.01% of water rights were under Aboriginal control, and of the $16 billion Murray-Darling Basin water market, just 0.1%, or $16 million, is in Aboriginal hands.

Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples expresses the right Aboriginal people have "to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas".

And Article 32 instructs that "states shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples" and obtain "their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project" that affects their land and uses their water.

But so far Australian governments have showed little interest and no urgency to support. Water rights are necessary to secure cultural flows.

What good is all that land if we don’t have a say in the way the river is managed?

— Badger Bates, Barkandji elder, Darling river region

Cultural water and cultural flows

What is cultural water?

Aboriginal people know stand-alone or cultural water. Cultural water recognises the river's "sacred importance" to Aboriginal people and an important factor to understand culture.

Cultural water is water associated with ceremony, protecting cultural heritage sites that require wetting, initiation sites in wetlands or near rivers, men's business and women's business and birthing sites.

This water needs to stand alone, meaning aside from other interests in water such as looking after healthy rivers, healthy native fish stocks and keeping sheep and cattle out of rivers.

Often ignored, the concept of cultural water finds its way into policies more and more. It is about time, when Aboriginal people's native title claims cover about a third of Australia's land mass, but only 0.01% of its water diversions.

What are cultural flows?

Cultural Flows are "water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by Indigenous Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality, to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations".

Cultural flows is a concept that says Aboriginal people have a right to water for spiritual, economic and environmental purposes. By securing water allocations, Aboriginal communities along a river can take part in the management of that river system.

Cultural flows are not the same as environmental flows. The latter might help flush a wetland, but not necessarily align with Aboriginal ideas of keeping a river healthy.

For more information, go to the National Cultural Flows Research Project.

We've been managing the river as custodians from the beginning of time, but governments are not asking us how we did that.

— Grant Rigney, vice chairman, Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations


View article sources (8)

[1] [1a] 'Discussion flows at water summit', Koori Mail 524 p.28
[2] 'Kerrianne Cox', ABC "Defining Moments" series, Message Sticks Film Festival 2013
[3] ''On their knees': Drought and nuts blamed for 'decimating' food sector', SMH 25/10/2019
[4] [4a] [4b] ''It's our lifeblood': the Murray-Darling and the fight for Indigenous water rights', The Guardian 10/4/2018
[5] [5a] 'First Nations call on government to end water rights drought', SMH 10/1/2021
[6] 'United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples', United Nations March 2008, p.10 and p.12
[7] [7a] ''Cultural water': Indigenous water claims finally on Darling agenda', SMH 20/1/2019
[8], accessed 10/4/2018

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Water: Meaning and management, <>, retrieved 25 May 2024

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