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Caring for water and Country

As a sector, we are all aware that managing the water cycle requires an integrated range of disciplines and people. It also requires community, whether that be in an urban or rural environment. Water connects communities, it is the foundation of health, productivity and liveability. This is what the water sector is all about.

The theme of this year’s National Water Week (18-24 October) is ‘Caring for water and Country’. This theme is an invitation for us all to think more deeply about our local environment, to think more about how First Nations peoples care for Country, and the role water plays in our local communities.

This year I am joined by Traditional Owner Gomeroi, Kamilaroi, Gamilaroi Nation Phil Duncan, who is Senior Aboriginal Consultant at Alluvium, and Risk Edge’s Dr Annette Davison as National Water Week Ambassadors.

Together, we will be encouraging individuals, communities and organisations to reflect on the value of water and its fundamental connection to Country, and the importance of integrating First Nations people’s knowledge into how we care for this precious resource.

Integrating First Nations knowledge

As we continue on the reconciliation journey with Indigenous people, it’s crucial to think about water and Country, to acknowledge Indigenous knowledge and practices, and to work towards integrating this insight into how we manage water and land.

As Phil tells us, it’s impossible to separate water from Country.

“Water is central to how we interact with our cultural landscapes. It is so important that people realise that we have this symbiotic relationship,” he said.

Part of acknowledging this relationship is ensuring our sector works alongside First Nations peoples, who are now being rightfully recognised as a critical and unique stakeholder, with insights into water cycle management that will benefit our communities greatly.

While we’ve been talking about reconciliation for some time, this initiative is now being lifted up, particularly within the water sector. It’s come through in the National Water Initiative recommendations, which formally recognises that Indigenous peoples need to have greater access to water, and much greater access and involvement in decision making.

As I have already mentioned, good water management includes a range of disciplines. It’s about community, it’s about people and it’s about Country. And First Nations people have a big role to play in shaping how we approach this important job.

Integration in action

At the Australian Water Association, we are working on our Reconciliation Action Plan. A lot of our members have done the same, and have made some great progress in their communities and in engaging with the Indigenous peoples that they serve and work with.

We all recognise that it’s a long journey, and that we still have far to go. But this year’s National Water Week is a great opportunity for us to stop and think about what caring for water and Country means, particularly in our local environments and communities, and how we can continue to collaborate genuinely with First Nations communities.

At Ozwater’20, we heard from Managing Director of Indigenous community organisation Madjulla Incorporated, Dr Anne Poelina, who highlighted the importance of collaborating.

“The time has come for structural reform and systemic change in the way water resource development strategies are planned and implemented. Orthodox development cannot proceed as ‘business as usual’ at the regional, national and global levels,” Poelina said.

Anne is doing some incredible work, exploring the entrepreneurial ‘New Economy’ opportunities for Indigenous people along the National Heritage-Listed Fitzroy River, showcasing to us all what working with First Nations communities and Indigenous knowledge can achieve.

“By supporting developments that adapt to the local environment and include, rather than ignore, local Aboriginal communities, government assistance may indeed pass the test of benefits exceeding costs, making initial support both economically and socially desirable,” Anne said.

There are plenty more examples of genuine collaboration and integration of Indigenous knowledge unfolding throughout the sector now, too, providing opportunities for us to learn from each other about how best to continue on this journey.

Monash University has recently launched a project – Repairing Memory & Place: An Indigenous-led approach to urban water design – which is all about taking an interdisciplinary and culturally driven approach to water on Boon Wurrung Country.

We are seeing more and more examples of our members committing to Indigenous procurement targets, committing to the support of Indigenous-led businesses within the sector.

And, very recently, we were very proud to celebrate the appointment of Gundijmara man Rueben Berg as the new Chairperson at Westernport Water – the first Aboriginal Chair of a water corporation in Victoria’s history.

These developments and projects are exciting, they are examples of how best to work with First Nations people to integrate Indigenous knowledge into how we manage water, and care for Country.

Pathway to success

And so, what does success look like, in terms of respectfully and effectively incorporating Indigenous knowledge into our water management practices?

Success here relates to diversity and inclusion, which has become a big focus in the water sector more broadly. We all know it’s not right to exclude the important role of First Nations people. But First Nations people are being asked to engage a lot, and this can be quite a burden.

At Ozwater’21, we heard from South Australian of the Year 2021 Tanya Hosch, who urged us to practice humility when working towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“I know a lot of you are thinking about how to engage Indigenous peoples in the work that you do, and how to act upon those plans. But it’s important to stop and take a moment to explore why we are doing this work,” Tanya said.

“Our lack of willingness not to be an expert can prevent an appropriate amount of humility when seeking to learn. This lack of humility can obscure our view and prevent us from really hearing when we seek to listen.

“If you can achieve true reconciliation, true equal relationships with Traditional Owners, then all other forms of inclusion become quite easy. A lot of the principles are the same.”

As Tanya suggests, successfully integrating Indigenous knowledge into our water management practices is about moving past tokenistic engagement – taking the time to stop, and listen deeply – and allow First Nations people to guide us in how we can work together to manage water and the environment, and how to respect cultures and respect community in everything that we do.

True inclusion and integration ensures First Nations people have a seat at the table, that they are represented in leadership roles, and involves listening and working side by side with the knowledge that they hold, in a respectful way that gets the best outcomes for their communities and the community more broadly.

But we can’t expect First Nations people to do all of this work. We all need to show up if we are going to work towards achieving the best outcomes for the community and the environment.

Sometimes we expect different people to fit a certain construct of what public consultation or decision making looks like. We need to be more flexible and try different models. We need to rethink our approach, and chase those opportunities for more holistic integration of Indigenous perspectives.

And so we need to be willing to plan differently, and work differently, to solve some of these problems together.

An invitation to reflect

With many people in Australia in lockdown, we have all had an opportunity to get back to community and spend time in our local environment. We are all primed to look, listen and be present within our local communities and environments, more so now that we probably would have otherwise.

It feels natural that this year’s National Water Week is encouraging us to think more deeply about caring for water and Country.

There have been discussions around the positive impact that COVID-19 has had on our environment. And this time is an excellent opportunity to connect people to the land, to the wisdom of First Nations people, and understand what that means.

And so I’d like to welcome everybody across the country to come together for National Water Week to listen, learn and reflect on the connection of water and Country, and how this connection can guide us towards a more inclusive, respectful and sustainable water future.