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Amplifying First Nations voices in water management

Let’s say a company commits to making an Acknowledgement of Country at the start of meetings – great. They proceed to formulate a Reconciliation Action Plan – even better. But when it comes down to it, how are they engaging actively with Australia’s First Nations in terms of policy and procedures?

On day two of Ozwater’22, Nathan Malcolm and Michael Ulph outlined how GHD was tasked with determining how one organisation might do exactly that.

As part of their Water Security Plan, Central Coast Council in New South Wales had determined nine possible avenues towards securing future water supply, including desalination, stormwater harvesting, use of groundwater, purified recycled water for drinking and environmental flow substitution.

To ensure Indigenous voices were consulted during the deliberation process, GHD held discussions with local Aboriginal Land Councils to determine the cultural values of the local community towards water.

“Planning is key,” noted Malcolm of the process of community engagement. “It was important for us to clearly document what we planned beforehand and prepare as much as possible with research.”

GHD identified three major take-outs, namely: water conservation and water sharing were ranked highly as options for future planning; the ratings of Indigenous stakeholders were relatively close to feedback from general community consultation; and there is a need to continue building relationships with Traditional Custodians.

Benefits for all

Another utility that has made Indigenous engagement a core tenet of planning is SA Water.

When working with the creative consultancy McConnell Dowell & Diona to build a pipeline in the state’s far north, the company made sure to consult extensively with the community – the pipeline ran through a culturally significant site for the Adnyamathanha people of the northern Flinders Ranges.

Clyde Rigney, a Ngarrindjeri man and Aboriginal Engagement and Reconciliation Advisor at SA Water, described the benefits of the company’s commitment to reconciliation.

“When you improve the economic prosperity for people, it improves our lives,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the history of Aboriginal people in Australia, when the economy was being established we were not involved.”

McConnell Dowell & Diona’s Marc Doyle spoke to the flow-on effects of consultation on non-Indigenous workers on the project.

“From speaking to the site supervisor, I know just how much of an impression the experience had on the site crew,” he said.

“[They understood how] they were not just digging a trench and laying a pipe. They were going onto Country and developed a greater appreciation of the long-standing connection Traditional Owners have.”

Two-way dialogue

Capping off the day’s discussion was a truly diverse and international line-up of speakers.

Moderated by Tom Mollenkopf, President of the International Water Association (IWA), the panel brought together Indigenous speakers from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand and North America to explore the intrinsic relationships between First Nations peoples with lands and waterways.

“The embedding of Indigenous values at all points in systems is critical to enable a true outcomes focus for the health and wellbeing of people and water,” said Nicki Douglas, Environment Manager at Te Arawa Lakes Trust in Aotearoa New Zealand.

She gave – at least from an Australian perspective – a rare example of cooperation between an Indigenous people and a nation’s government that followed a treaty settlement with the Te Arawa confederation of peoples.

“One of the results of the settlement was the establishment of a partnership with local and central governments,” she said.

Another byproduct was a land restoration strategy focusing on water quality, species management, ecosystems, and engagement between community and the lakes.

“The strategy has enabled us to bring into play a framework to help us make decisions about how the catchment is managed,” she said.

Joining via Zoom – at 2:30am local time – was Professor Dawn Martin-Hill, Indigenous Studies Chair at McMaster University in Ontario and a Wolf Clan member of the Mohawk people, who told of efforts to bring Indigenous scholarship around water into the mainstream via the pan-Canadian Global Water Futures research program.

The project aims to deliver risk management solutions to position Canada as a global leader in water science and address the looming water crisis.

The lingering problem? “We don’t own our waterways.”

Closer to home, Brooke O’Donnell and Jerome ‘Buck’ Wade, a pair of Emerging Indigenous Water Leader Scholarship recipients at the Water Corporation in Western Australia, illustrated examples of the work they have done in engaging with Indigenous elders, such as when obtaining Aboriginal Heritage Agreements.

“We make recommendations on all of the projects at the Water Corporation to ensure that cultural preservation is paramount and will be passed onto future generations,” she said.

Professor Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa woman and Indigenous Studies Chair at Notre Dame University, perhaps summed it up best.

“We are faced with a planet of climate chaos and uncertainty, and must listen to Indigenous wisdom,” she said. “We must give them a voice.”