Indigenous water planning needs a voice

Indigenous people have lived on Australian lands for at least 65,000 years. Their knowledge of water and the environment will be critical going forward. Inside Water spoke to Associate Professor Bradley Moggridge to find out why Indigenous water planning needs to be a key component for water authorities across Australia.

Indigenous people have lived on Australian lands for at least 65,000 years. Their knowledge of water and the environment will be critical going forward. Inside Water spoke to Associate Professor Bradley Moggridge to find out why Indigenous water planning needs to be a key component for water authorities across Australia.

Bradley Moggridge is a proud Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation. The Kamilaroi Nation is found in northwest New South Wales and crosses the border into southwest Queensland. As an in-land nation, it has thrived on freshwater through the many rivers and wetlands that run through its lands. It also sits above the Great Artesian Basin, along with several other nations.

Moggridge has a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Science) and a Master of Science (Hydrogeology). He is currently working on finalising his PhD at the University of Canberra. While studying, he is also an Associate Professor in Indigenous Water Science. Until June 2021, he was the Indigenous Liaison Officer for the Threatened Species Recovery Hub under NESP.

His credentials have not ended there. Moggridge was part of the winning team at the 2022 National Science Quiz, awarded the 2019 ACT Tall Poppy of the Year for Science, the 2019 ACT NAIDOC Scholar of the Year, the inaugural Academy of Science Aboriginal Travel Award for 2019, and the CSIRO Aboriginal STEM Career Achievement Award in 2019. He is a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a WWF Governor, VP Australian Freshwater Science Society and a Fellow of the Peter Cullen Trust and Alumni of the International Water Centre.

Connection to water and water planning

When Inside Water heard him talk to ABC Radio National about the role of Indigenous voices in water planning, we knew there had to be more.

Moggridge’s connection to water comes from his people and his nation. One of the most culturally significant places for the Kamilaroi people is the Boobera Lagoon. It is a permanent water hole that lies south of the Macintyre River, about 20 kilometres west of Goondiwindi. Boobera Lagoon is of particular significance as it is believed to be the resting place of Garriya, the serpent with a crocodile head. Boobera Lagoon is used for the third stage of their joint male initiation ceremonies at this site, and motorised water sport is now prohibited.

“We’ve always been strong with water; many of our communities are right next to the water. Many of our cultural places, including ceremonial grounds, men’s and women’s business, burials, the old missions and reserves, and many frontier massacre sites, are all next to the rivers. We’ve always had a strong connection with water,” said Moggridge.

“I think that’s been my drive in going down the science path. I wanted to have an impact on water. I’ve studied geology and environmental science and then hydrogeology. I am now broadly a researcher in Indigenous water science as an associate professor, so I live it every day.”

Indigenous people have missed out

In terms of Indigenous water planning, Indigenous people were first mentioned in national policy in 2004 as part of the National Water Initiative. That document has three clauses in which the parties would provide Indigenous access to water resources by relevant Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation. It would be part of planning processes that ensured the inclusion of Indigenous representation in water planning wherever possible.

The water plans would also incorporate Indigenous social, spiritual and customary objectives and strategies for achieving them wherever they can be developed. The water planning processes would consider the possible existence of native title rights to water in the catchment or aquifer area. Native title holders would be allocated a say on water under the NSW Water Management Act (2000) for traditional cultural purposes only.

However, Moggridge has found that the actual effort has not yet occurred. The principles are put in place, but the enforcement, implementation or policy has not yet been followed.

“New South Wales is creating an Aboriginal water strategy now (2022), but the Act mentioned above has been in place for 22 years. It’s only just happening now. The picture around the country is not much better. Victoria is probably the best at the moment,” said Moggridge.

Moggridge referred to Griffith University Research Fellow Dr Lana Hartwig. She found that while Aboriginal people in the NSW portion of the Murray-Darling Basin constitute 5.4 per cent of the total population, their organisations hold only 0.2 per cent of the available surface water, equating to 0.1 per cent of the total dollar water value in the MDB. Her research identified changes in Aboriginal water holdings between 2009 and 2018 that indicated a new wave of dispossession. Almost one-fifth of Aboriginal water holdings by volume were lost over 2009−18 (at least 17.2 per cent).

Views around ownership

One of the issues that Moggridge has identified is the question of ownership.

“Traditionally, they would not have thought of ownership because water would have just been there in the rivers,” said Moggridge. “Every mob knew that you didn’t do anything in your part of the river that would affect someone downstream. You also wouldn’t take all the fish, and you wouldn’t take all the emu eggs. I suppose it was a sustainability issue because surviving in a dry climate means knowing and protecting water resources is a key part of your survival.”

He also highlighted the importance of knowing where to find water when the rivers got low, where the deepwater holes were and what to do. This sort of thing does not exist in a modern concept. Ownership is the devil we know, as water has a dollar value. Indigenous land councils want to be involved.

“Some Aboriginal land councils have acquired land in New South Wales and are trying to generate opportunities, but none can happen without water entitlements,” said Moggridge. “If they don’t have water, it is much harder to participate in some of those rural economies.”

How to learn from Indigenous water planners

Clean, healthy water is something that everyone needs and wants as a basic human right. Indigenous people have focused on that for much longer, and Moggridge believes that the work of Indigenous water planners could support the change if they were listened to.

At the current point, there are not enough Indigenous water planners. To the best of Moggridge’s knowledge, there are two in New South Wales, several in Victoria, and perhaps two in Western Australia. He knows one in the ACT but none in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. The lack of critical mass makes it harder to advance beyond an advisory role in the rights and engagement process.

The biggest challenge in listening to Indigenous water planners is getting more Indigenous people involved in water science.

“Right now, we do not have many Indigenous people studying these courses at university. If we can encourage Aboriginal people to go to university and study these courses, that is an excellent start,” said Moggridge.

Moggridge also spoke about the need for science to acknowledge Indigenous people’s observations. They can be incorporated into existing knowledge bases for data collection. He argued that thousands of generations of observations could be built into a knowledge base rather than treated as fables or myths and legends.

“It’s a real challenge to build that capacity and change the culture of science to make Aboriginal knowledge equal. We need to get more recognition, but we also need the opportunity to have a voice rather than being advisors. I believe that in the next five years, we will see an Aboriginal water holder. It could be a basin-specific role for holding water entitlements for Aboriginal people across the basin to allow them to engage in the water market,” said Moggridge.

Engagement is key for Indigenous water planning

The most important thing that Moggridge highlighted was engagement.

“You must spend time in these communities developing trust with them,” he said. “It’s not about sending one e-mail, not getting a response and claiming that as your consultation. It is about getting out there and talking to the people. My tip is the five Ts: Time to build Trust over Tea and Tim Tams.”

His anecdotal research on this admittedly unusual facet of engagement has shown that different groups want different things. That is the prime point of engagement. While Moggridge prefers green tea and will say yes to any Tim Tams, each Indigenous group has different needs and approaches.

“It’s a way for you to build a platform with them. Currently, there is not enough employment and engagement of Aboriginal people in the water sector,” he said. “If that can change, there is potential for Indigenous water planning to move forward to benefit everyone.”

He also talked about understanding the culture of individual Indigenous tribes. One issue Moggridge has faced is the difference between men’s business and women’s business and how that relates to water. “It is a challenge. It’s not something that an Aboriginal person wouldn’t potentially understand. You might want to research a particular waterhole; if it’s a women’s site, they have the right to talk about it. If you are a man going to that site, there is no negotiation around that. It is up to you to find a workaround for it, whether it is identifying a female officer in your organisation or getting a female relative to help you out,” said Moggridge.

Understanding the culture and those challenges is part of Moggridge’s research. However, he accepts that as part of the research he conducts. It does not matter what he plans, and things can happen. He cited the possibility of Sorry business (a funeral), and all bets are off with your plans. The ability to adjust and be flexible is key.

Related Articles:

Send this to a friend