Indigenous Perspectives on Water and Land Management in Rural South Australia

Water Back is an emergent movement to centre Indigenous epistemologies and histories in research that advances Indigenous Water sovereignty. It includes a wide range of themes including, but not limited to, cosmology and governance, colonialism, justice, health, rights and responsibilities, and climate change.

As such, it is a framework for asserting Indigenous values in Water policymaking.

Indigenous Knowledge of Land and Water

Despite a history of dispossession and marginalisation, Aboriginal peoples remain the most impacted by natural resource management decisions. The world view of Aboriginal Australians, their deep connection to Country and thousands of years of observation can be a rich resource in Western environmental management. But this knowledge has often been sidelined, to the detriment of the environment and the Indigenous community.

Indigenous communities are still largely locked out of the economic benefits of agricultural land and water management. Even when Aboriginal land and water rights are formally recognised by governments through statutory land and water return processes, this often does not translate into meaningful access to the land and water to use for economic purposes (Moggridge and Thompson 2021). The lack of Aboriginal land and water rights has implications well beyond the individual community. It is a structural barrier to economic prosperity that requires substantial capital investment for Aboriginal entrants to the agricultural market in order to compete.

This is exacerbated by the inequitable distribution of capital across rural and urban areas, which is often reflected in asymmetrical access to water infrastructure. The reliance on private finance to fund essential public services such as health, education and telecommunications also disproportionately impacts on remote communities. The lack of access to economic opportunities in rural areas is also a significant driver of the high suicide rates among Indigenous Australians.

In addressing the need for increased engagement with Indigenous community members, many organisations are developing methodologies to capture the Indigenous perspective on natural resources and their values and uses. This is an important step towards the goal of incorporating Indigenous knowledge in natural resource management. However, it is important to recognise that such methodologies need to be developed in collaboration with Aboriginal community representatives. This will ensure that the research reflects not only the complexities of Indigenous structural disadvantage but also the diverse cultures, narratives, geographies and aspirations that are inherent within each community. This will ultimately result in better informed and more effective decisions for natural resource management. In addition, integrating Indigenous knowledge will support the development of Indigenous researchers and the utilisation of indigenous research techniques.

Knowledge of Plants and Animals

Despite a broader understanding of their land, Indigenous people are often excluded from the decision-making processes that affect their natural and cultural heritage. Their traditional ecological knowledge is not always integrated into environmental water management (EWM) planning. It is a key part of their understanding of their country. Indigenous landowners and community members are concerned that the current EWM approach to natural resource management (NRM) is excluding Indigenous people from participation in its planning, monitoring and policy development.

Indigenous community leaders and researchers are establishing innovative and creative strategies to address these concerns. These strategies include the use of cultural mapping and traditional knowledge to identify water-sensitive areas. They are also developing methods for the collection and storage of indigenous environmental water knowledge and promoting its use in EWM planning. In addition, they are working to improve the effectiveness of Aboriginal community-based water monitoring programs.

These initiatives demonstrate that a more holistic and culturally-based approach to NRM can be successful for indigenous communities. Moreover, they can help to re-establish a positive relationship between human beings and nature. However, it is essential that alternative approaches do not inadvertently reproduce colonial terms and metrics.

During interviews, participants emphasised that they have close connections to their Country. They frequently referred to their waterways as ‘lifeblood’ or’mother’ and spoke of their roles in caring for Country and its non-human inhabitants. However, these relationships are vulnerable to disruption from over-extraction and infrastructure development.

The economic structure of water colonialism – selective restitution after dispossession – ensures that Aboriginal people accrue only a small fraction of the revenue generated from irrigated agriculture (Holmes, 2006). As a result, irrigated agriculture is often seen as an uneconomic activity for Aboriginal landholders. In contrast, a survey conducted for the MDBA in 2016/17 showed that almost half of employed Aboriginal people were engaged in activities related to “caring for country,” most of which are associated with water.

Many iwi are frustrated with the model that separates land tenure from water allocations, which limits their ability to access water for environmental purposes. They have argued for the need for research that involves Ngai Tahu in the field of water, and for more opportunities to apply their indigenous ecological knowledge to environmental water management issues.

Knowledge of Water Management

Indigenous peoples’ relationship with water is more than a physical resource. It is a cultural and spiritual connection to Country, embedded in lore, language and identity, with custodial, intergenerational and gendered responsibilities. Indigenous Australians have extensive traditional knowledge of surface and groundwater (Moggridge and Thompson 2021; Rose 2004). This accumulated over millennia ensured survival on the driest continent, through finding, re-finding and protecting water (Dawson and Muller 2010).

In New Zealand, Maori have a rich relationship with their natural environment and their ancestors, including water. It is a fundamental part of iwi and tribal identity (Moggridge and Mihinui 2010). Water is also important in the lives of the community, with people greeting each other by asking “Ko wai koe?” or ‘Who is your mob?’ (see image above).

The Productivity Commission’s ‘Issues Paper’ on National Water Reform released in May 2020 calls for a refresh of the National Water Initiative, with Aboriginal water needs incorporated into water management. However, this requires jurisdictions to reframe water policies and decision-making processes beyond the colonial model of water that has dominated since European arrival.

This reframe requires jurisdictions to recognise Indigenous peoples’ inherent relationships, connections and responsibilities with water and to include these in decisions about the management of waters (Water Back). It also involves addressing the legacies of water colonialism that have been imposed on Australian water systems, which continue to be tailored by government to generate economic benefits for agricultural capital and the settler-state, with momentous consequences for Indigenous communities (Moreno et al. 2017).

Moreover, this approach to water management must avoid inadvertently reproducing colonial frameworks of measurement and performance by adopting an Indigenous research methodology. This would allow Indigenous communities to use this knowledge to challenge the power structures and world views that drive current water and land management, and to create solutions that are appropriate for their cultural context.

In this regard, an example of this could be the use of environmental watering by Aboriginal people to improve landscape health by restoring wetland and river habitats in rural areas, rather than using it for irrigation (Jackson and Head 2020). This is consistent with the aspirations of many Aboriginal Traditional Owners for ‘caring for country’ aims that go beyond economic returns.

Knowledge of Climate Change

Despite the growing understanding that Indigenous knowledge is essential for addressing water challenges, it is still rarely recognised or considered by Western scientific and government bodies. This is because of the dominance of a colonial epistemology that privileges scientific and Western knowledge over other forms of knowledge, such as Indigenous and Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Taking a values-based approach to climate change risk assessment can provide important insights into how traditional practices are impacted by the changing climate, helping guide adaptation planning (Moggridge et al., 2022). However, a values-based approach is challenging to implement in practice because water agencies often do not recognise the significance of Indigenous values and ways of knowing and relating to water.

A major challenge is the difficulty of transferring TEK into an adapted adaptation planning process. This is because of the lack of an inclusive and transparent engagement model that enables people to take part in decision making. Instead, the status quo process relies on a consultation paradigm that can alienate and disempower communities (Maclaren et al., 2013).

The YBM people in North Queensland have created a new model of collaboration with scientists to assess impacts on cultural values in their country. They have used the YBM Adaptation Values Index, developed with scientists from James Cook University, to identify and collate YBM values and develop strategies to cope with environmental changes.

Aboriginal agropastoralists are developing a range of coping mechanisms to deal with drought and climate events. These include using a variety of methods to predict climate event arrival, including watching animal and plant behaviours. They are also adjusting their farming practices to accommodate the changing climate, such as switching from saline irrigation to salt-free techniques and moving planting seasons earlier or later depending on weather conditions.

Australia’s indigenous peoples have millennia worth of accumulated traditional ecological knowledge. This reflects their deep connection with land and water, and an ancient world view based on reciprocity, solidarity and co-responsibility. The inclusion of this knowledge in water and landscape management can be a key step towards achieving water justice for Aboriginal communities.