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COP28: putting water, women and Indigenous Knowledge on the agenda

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference brings together international leaders, organisations and researchers to negotiate plans to address climate change, and last year’s event saw Australian delegates advocating for water and the inclusion of diverse voices.

At COP28, Australian delegates pushed for a greater acknowledgement of water’s fundamental connection to climate, as well as the urgent need to ensure all people – including women, Indigenous peoples and marginalised groups – have a voice on solutions.

Representing the University of Canberra’s Centre for Applied Water Science, inaugural Galambany Professorial Fellow and Kamilaroi man Dr Phil Duncan said his participation at COP28 was all about raising the profile of water and Indigenous cultural science.

“My primary focus at COP28 was advocating for cultural science to be integrated into water management. It’s the missing ingredient, the missing science for a holistic approach to combat climate change,” he said.

“But I also went to COP28 with a clear message: water is the beating heart of Country. Water should be central to all future climate change dialogues, initiatives or discussions about loss and damages.

“It’s crucial that all of this work is done in collaboration with communities. It’s crucial to enable and integrate Indigenous peoples into the dialogue and the co-design of solutions, so that we can all move forward with a holistic approach for the planet’s survival together.”

Water for Women Fund Manager Alison Baker was also in attendance, working alongside other water partners to engage delegates to consider climate change initiatives and solutions through a gender and social lens. The Water for Women Fund is a flagship Australian government funded program, managed by GHD, to improve inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene across the Indo-Pacific in a changing climate.

“Climate change is such a big issue, but it is also very much a gendered and social issue. Oftentimes, climate change impacts the most vulnerable – those communities and groups who don’t necessarily have the resources to adapt,” Baker said.

“When we’re looking for climate solutions, we need to be involving all different parties, whether it's women, Traditional Knowledge holders, people with a disability, or any marginalised group.”

After attending COP27 in 2022, Baker said approaching climate solutions holistically was a continued theme at COP28, with a focus on working together to solve more than one problem at once.

“When it comes to climate change, we can't look at all the issues separately anymore. We need to look at multiple issues at the same time. This needs a multi-sectoral and collaborative approach,” she said.

“We need to understand all of the issues separately, but the best solutions come when we put these issues back together and focus on the connections.”

Making history

During COP28, Duncan delivered a presentation on the Freshwater Challenge – a country-led initiative that aims to support, integrate and accelerate the restoration of 30% of the Earth’s degraded freshwater ecosystems by 2030.

But Duncan also made history as the first Indigenous representative to address the COP Presidency – a moment that was not just important for him personally, Duncan said, but also for Australia and all climate change collaborators.

“I was the first blackfella ever to be invited to speak to the COP Presidency on behalf of Australia. I addressed the COP Presidency as an Indigenous leader of my people, the Kamilaroi. I also acknowledged all Indigenous people globally,” he said.

“It’s not just a moment for me, it’s a moment for our country and for our collaborators. It’s a moment for all of these wonderful champions that want to take this journey with us.”

Duncan’s address focused on the fundamental need to collaborate with Indigenous peoples – to understand and utilise cultural science and western science together.

“Our way of life is built on science, it’s called cultural science, and it should be understood as a science. And it should be acknowledged alongside western approaches. They both coexist and they should not be looked upon as competitive sciences,” he said.

“By looking at them together we can create more options. They are complementary to one another. Indigenous peoples are here with a spirit of generosity. We are willing to give and to share our knowledge.

“But we need to be a part of the journey, through two-way knowledge sharing, so that we are walking softly across Country together.

“As well intentioned as this work is, we need to work with Indigenous communities, not for them. Enable us and you enable the opportunity for cultural knowledge, methodology and science to be integrated into how we move forward together.”

Duncan said the support he received from the University of Canberra, the Australian Water Partnership and the Australian Water Association has been integral to his ability to share his perspective on the world stage.

“The support I have received from collaborators is an example of what can be achieved when we work together. The support I have received from the UC, the AWP and the AWA has been moving,” he said.

“And it goes both ways. I am really staunch about the rematriation of our Indigenous women’s knowledge, and bringing their perspectives forward. The water sector is a male dominated industry, so now it’s my turn to advocate for women to have a voice at the table, too.”

Sharing water perspectives

While COP is well-known for hosting critical political negotiations, Baker said the event also provides an important platform for connecting and sharing among private sector, NGOs, UN agencies and research organisations.

“Political negotiations are important, but the broader event is where the real richness of the conversation occurs and where people work together on solutions. We need the big framework to drive change, but the solutions and collaboration must happen in parallel for real progress to occur,” she said.

“Water for Women was involved in a number of different panels. We facilitated a panel, From sea to source: stories of climate resilience connected by water, which focused on various Indigenous perspectives from Australia, including Phil Duncan, but also examples from the Pacific, looking at stories where water was a strong factor in climate resilience.

“We also organised an event, Sowing seeds of change for a climate resilient future. That was about exploring the tools needed to bring diverse voices into the planning and decision-making processes in a sustainable and equitable way.”

Baker said her role at COP28 was also as a Water Pavilion Envoy, alongside other water and WASH representatives from Water for Women, GHD, and other core partner organisations supporting the Water for Climate Pavilion.

“Our job was not to sit in the water pavilion, but to take our understanding of the valuable role that water can play to support climate solutions out into all the other pavilions,” she said.

“As water pavilion envoys, our role was to engage with other people and ask questions about how water is being considered.”

Key outcomes

In terms of water-related outcomes from COP28, Baker said one of the biggest wins was the emphasis put on supporting strategies for adapting to the impacts of climate change.

“For a long time, the climate change discussion has focused on mitigation. But we're at a point now where that adaptation discussion is really important. We need to be able to adapt and water plays a central role in the adaptation processes,” she said.

The final text on the Global Goal for Adaptation retains calls for a doubling in adaptation finance and plans for assessments and monitoring of adaptation needs in the coming years.

Another key outcome was the announcement of more than 30 new country members of the Freshwater Challenge.

COP28 also saw a landmark agreement to support vulnerable nations facing the worst of climate change’s impacts, with a geographically diverse board set to be established and the fund initially managed by the World Bank.

“The recognition of the importance of adaptation was fantastic to see. Getting the message out from an Australian perspective is something that we will continue to promote,” Baker said.

“But we will also continue to advocate for the integral role that women, Indigenous people and marginalised groups have in contributing to sustainable solutions.”