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"Nothing about us, without us": call for deeper Indigenous involvement in water catchment management

Incorporating Aboriginal water knowledge into catchment management plans requires acknowledging Aboriginal lore as a cultural science, according to one Indigenous water expert who’s calling for more inclusion of Aboriginal Australians in the nation’s water management strategy.

Including insight from water catchment stakeholders and experts, the AWA Catchment Management Specialist Network Webinar and Workshop aimed to explore whether the water sector is doing enough to manage increasing pressures on the integrity of our catchments.

Speaking about cultural science and Aboriginal voices in the water industry, Murray-Darling Basin Authority Community Chair and Macquarie University Aboriginal Cultural Training Coordinator Phil Duncan said the time has come to achieve thorough and respectful inclusion of Indigenous water knowledge within Australia’s catchments management plans.

A Gomeroi man from Moree, Duncan said it’s crucial to start implementing Indigenous insight, and that this implementation needs to come from genuine respect for Aboriginal involvement in the water sector.

“Throughout my 25-years-plus involvement in Aboriginal water movement, there is a new concept that’s developed called ‘nothing about us without us’. It’s based on the platforms of self-determination, self-respect and self-management, particularly in the water arena where we have been somewhat operating in a vacuum and for quite some time,” he said.

“It’s about moving forward with developing opportunities for Aboriginal people to have their voices raised and have greater involvement and participation in water management planning.”

Water management as cultural science

Duncan said part of this recognition is about acknowledging Indigenous cultural science more broadly, including in water catchment management planning and incentives.

“We need to transgress from branding Aboriginal insight as traditional ecological knowledge to branding it as cultural science, because that’s what it is. We know our cultural landscapes. We know how to interact with it. We exist in a symbiotic relationship with it,” he said.

“The land looks after us and we have a cultural obligation to be involved in the caring for and repairing of Country. We know our cultural landscapes. We know how to interact with it and move through them.”

Furthermore, Duncan said there isn't a lack of interest in opportunities for Indigenous people to use traditional lore in contemporary water management practices.

“As a people, we are ever evolving, ever looking at windows of opportunity to increase our voices, particularly in the water industry, and watering, as we go forward,” he said.

“We all understand how important water is not just to the whole of society, but in Aboriginal society. It's central to life as everything revolves around it. That symbiotic relationship, what happens on the land can impact on the water and vice versa.

“So what we must embark on is this new platform: taking INdigenous knowledge as a cultural science and integrating cultural values into Western science methodologies, integrating it into water sharing plans and particularly with research platforms.

“And I again reaffirm that our science is a cultural science. It is a science and it should be appreciated and respect that as such.”

A challenge to government

Specifically, Duncan said he’d like to see the Federal Government move to ensure Indigenous cultural sciences included in water management planning.

“I present a challenge to the water industry because we know our vision. We want Indigenous-led water research and units across all government agencies and educational facilities for institutions,” he said.

“We'd like the Federal Government to establish a national First People's water advisory body to help instigate this.”

Duncan said that while Indigenous lore and Western catchment management methodologies don’t always seem congruent, he believes the sustainable management of water resources requires it.

“What a lot of people don't understand is the intangible. They can understand the object of a place of significance by seeing it, but because the spirituality is invisible to a lot of people, it becomes intangible,” he said.

“But understanding those creation stories and those song lines and understanding the song lines and the connection to country and creating a heightened understanding of our cultural obligations to look after country, to interact with country in a sustainable way that validates our science.”