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Creating space for First Nations leadership

Yaama (hello).

My name is Phil Duncan and I am an Ambassador for this year’s National Water Week.

This year’s National Water Week theme is "caring for water and Country". I am profoundly grateful to be asked to be an Ambassador as I see it as an opportunity to create greater understanding of the symbiotic relationship that Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous people have with our cultural landscapes.

But being an Ambassador also gives me the opportunity to generate more conversations with people on Country about their relationships, both spiritually and culturally, with their cultural landscapes. And water is central to that cultural way of life.

"Caring for water and Country" is a great advertisement for 65,000 years’ worth of Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous knowledge, and how we’ve lived on the driest inhabited continent on this planet and how it has sustained us. We have nurtured it, we have protected it, and we can continue to act in a sustainable manner with all of our cultural resources. And water, again, is central to that.

Despite the experience Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous people have with caring for water and Country, water management in Australia has been driven by Western science more recently. It’s time now for us to be able to apply our traditional ecological knowledge, which is actually cultural science, alongside Western science.

For too long these two ways of thinking have challenged one another, when in fact they can co-exist, and they do co-exist — this has been proven.

Looking through this perspective, National Water Week is an opportunity to promote and foster greater collaboration and partnerships, two-way knowledge exchanges, cultural capacity building (for those that don’t know), and creating greater curiosity to learn more about Aboriginal society.

These two-way knowledge exchanges can benefit Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous and Traditional Owner communities, too. Water speak is a speak of its own. In order for Aboriginal communities to have a greater role in the planning and implementation of long-term strategies, we need to demystify water speak to create more understanding of the technical aspects of water management.

If you come to the tea table, sit with a curious mind and a willingness to listen, some of our knowledge keepers will enthral you with what they know about their cultural landscapes, and how that knowledge has been transferred from generation to generation to where it is today.

It is so important that we keep those stories, those songlines, those Dreamings going.

Leading the way

Globally, we are recognised as the oldest living race on this planet. I believe that we have demonstrated, since time immemorial, how to care for water and Country, how to ensure that there is plenty for everybody.

There is an urgent need now to ensure that First Nations knowledge in caring for Country is heard. Unfortunately, we sometimes operate in a vacuum of opportunity. There’s a lack of opportunity for us to use our voices and help lead the way on caring for water and Country.

There is a unique opportunity at the moment for uptake in including our cultural water knowledge in the national instrument, in the Water Act. But it’s now time to establish a national Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous, Traditional Owner water advisory council.

I envisage this council to be a central, pivotal point for Aboriginal committees across the continent. It could provide necessary advice and be a decision making mechanism around the greater uptake of cultural values in water resource planning right across the country.

It could provide opportunities and targets for Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous led research. And I don’t just mean research about cultural water; I want to see Indigenous-led research around fit for purpose water, and infrastructure, too.

We don’t want all the water. We want a role in caring for our water and Country. We don’t break our water up into different categories. It’s cultural water, but it can be used for co-benefits including environmental and economic outcomes, as well as all the social requirements, including recreation and cultural education.

This council could also be a science communication mechanism for Aboriginal people and communities, assisting them to demystify water speak and the language associated with water planning and management.

The national water council could also hold an Aboriginal water trust as a means to support Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous groups that are culturally rich, but resource poor.

We always have to negotiate contracts for engagement and to do works on Country. The trust would give us a sense of autonomy in the water space in decision making and leadership, and more importantly, the capacity to support the multitudes of our urban, remote and isolated Aboriginal communities to be able to better gravitate into the water space.

A pathway forward

While I see this urgent need for a national Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous water advisory council and the benefits it would provide for us all, this need to be done the right way.

It’s crucial that these collaborations and partnerships are led by Aboriginal people. We must be present on the platforms of self-determination and respect. This is about more than inclusion, it’s about integrity of inclusion.

Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous leadership and responsibility will assist our communities in realising our cultural obligation to care for Country, particularly water. We have that obligation, it is intrinsic in our DNA since birth.

Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous people know that we will be judged by tomorrow's generation in terms of the state of the environment that we leave them, both culturally and environmentally. This obligation to care for Country never leaves us.

And so, there are greater opportunities now for our voices to be heard and for our influence to be known, but we can’t do it without the support of other industry stakeholders. We can lead this, but we need a few brave decision makers to establish an Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous water advisory council and trust for all of Australia.

This should be the pathway forward. All governments — state, territory and national — need to take action now. There has been enough research to support this move, there has been enough discussion. It’s time now to move beyond talking and start acting.

National Water Week presents that opportunity for us to lead that collaboration and two-way learning. But it needs to be led by us. Creating an obligation for Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous people to participate on someone else’s terms never works.

Collaborate with Aboriginal, First Nations, and Indigenous people because you want to do it, with us and for us. Those are two key words: with us and for us.

AWA has been a champion brand for Aboriginal people. I want to say a huge Murrabuu (thank you) to AWA and its partners for continuing to be a better advocate for us.