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Barwon Water is creating meaningful connections with Indigenous communities

Acknowledging the depth of Indigenous water knowledge is the first step in creating genuine reconciliation within water businesses and their communities, according to the authors of this year’s Best Water eJournal Paper.

Co-authored by Barwon Water’s Michael Thomas, David McKinnis and Shu Brown, Progressing reconciliation through Indigenous partnerships within Australian water utilities delves into the history of the First Peoples within Barwon Water’s service area, including their water and land care practices. 

The authors wrote that the aims of the paper are twofold: to build ongoing connections between Australia’s First Nations peoples and today’s water professionals by understanding the past, and to create stronger and more meaningful partnerships with traditional owners into the future.

“To do this, the paper devotes the first half to exploring the First People’s connection to water, including descriptions of aquaculture, depictions of traditional stories as they relate to water, and key insights from traditional elders on water management techniques and practices," the authors wrote.

Crucial to reconciliation is understanding the depth of Indigenous water knowledge, according to the authors, which highlights the incredible importance of incorporating this knowledge into present day practices.

“To use a ‘water’ timeline analogy relevant to this paper, if the entire 160 km length of the Barwon River represented Aboriginal presence in Australia, then European settlement would be the equivalent of the last 500 m of the river’s length,” they wrote. 

“In any event, Australian Aboriginals are the longest surviving continuous culture on the planet. Why is this important? 

“Only by considering these long time scales and developing an understanding of their deep connection to Country can we place historical European settlement, our present endeavours and challenges, as well as our future aspirations in a much broader context.”

Deeper engagement

Previously, Barwon Water’s relationship with Traditional Owners was limited to what was required under legislation. But in 2017, the utility identified an opportunity for deeper levels of engagement with Indigenous people that sought to move beyond traditional needs-based approaches of the past to a relationship of the future.

“In developing this approach, Barwon Water has sought to adopt a sufficiently wide perspective that elevates three aspects: celebrating Aboriginal deep-time connections to Country (the past), adopting meaningful actions that advance the livelihood of modern Aboriginals (the present), and developing a strategic mindset that strengthens Barwon Water’s connection to country and with Aboriginal people and culture into the future (the future),” the authors wrote.

This has included providing cultural awareness training, run by traditional owners, for all Barwon Water employees. Topics covered include the Stolen Generation, life as an Aboriginal person today, and cultural heritage.

“By tapping into this deep-well of Indigenous history, Barwon Water can offer its customers – and society at large – a much richer and more fulsome context to the provision of safe drinking water that underpins almost every aspect of social and economic life,” the authors wrote.

“The second reason for developing a partnership-based approach with traditional owners, is to provide a present-day practical commitment that enables the region’s Aboriginal people to flourish.”

Furthermore, the authors wrote that greater understanding produces more opportunities to integrate Indigenous perspectives, and find ways to support Indigenous communities. 

“Staff at Barwon Water are increasingly considering traditional owner perspectives in their everyday work, looking for opportunities where it can be included de rigueur,” they wrote. 

“With this thinking, Barwon Water education outreach staff have included a traditional owner research theme as part of its work with the Victorian ‘Tech School’ initiative, where high school students have the opportunity to research an Indigenous water issue and create a 360o video story.

“This simple initiative alone has the potential to reach – and educate – almost 20,000 high school students.”

As part of implementing its Innovate Reconciliation Action Plan, the Barwon Water is now working alongside traditional owners to develop a ‘Caring for Country’ plan that incorporates Indigenous principles and practices into current work practices and service provision.