Social and cultural values in water planning
Barber and Jackson for
Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC) and the National Water Commission (NWC), April 2012
The Northern Australia Water Futures Assessment (NAWFA) aims to provide the science needed to inform the development and protection of northern Australia's water resources, so that development is ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable.
This brochure describes the results from Sub-project 1 of the TRaCK NAWFA Social and Cultural Values Project. This project focussed on Indigenous water values in the upper Roper River, Northern Territory.
The NAWFA has four programs: Water Resources, Ecological, Knowledge Base, and Cultural and Social. The objective of the TRaCK NAWFA Cultural and Social Program is to increase understanding of the socio-cultural values, beliefs and practices associated with water in northern Australia and how they may be affected by changes in water availability. The TRaCK Social and Cultural Values project, which is part of the NAWFA Cultural and Social Program, was comprised of three sub-projects.
Sub-project 1 – Social and cultural values in water planning
Indigenous Water Values and Water Management on the Upper Roper River, NT
From 2010 to 2012, CSIRO researchers conducted a project examining Indigenous water values and water management on the upper Roper River in the Northern Territory. This research coincided with the first groundwater planning and allocation process conducted in the area by the Northern Territory Government, and was designed to feed new information into that process. The research was undertaken with the participation of local Indigenous people through a research agreement with the Northern Land Council.
The results of the research have important local implications for water planning, but also have considerable wider significance, and two major reports were produced - one focused on Indigenous water values in the catchment and its relationship to water planning, the other focused on traditional water management.
Roper River on Elsey Station
Report 1: Indigenous water values and water planning in the upper Roper River, NT
The key findings in this report were:
- The consistency of Indigenous water values in the Roper with those found elsewhere.
- The significant number of water sources and water places, as well as a rich set of stories, Dreamings, and historical associations important to local Indigenous people.
- The importance of environmental flows or 'water for the country' in local terms, encompassing water in the springs, rivers, creeks and waterholes, water at important Dreaming places, water for plants and animals.
- The need for water flows sufficient to maintain ongoing fishing and hunting by Indigenous people.
- The additional significance of mature riparian vegetation in the catchment, as major trees in significant locations are considered manifestations of living or recently deceased people.
- Significant changes in the local landscape in recent years due to high rainfall.
- Development impacts, such those from quarries and farms.
- The presence of new Indigenous NRM organisations, notably the Mangarrayi Rangers.
The first report also considered views regarding the proportion of the consumptive pool given over to Indigenous control (known as the Strategic Indigenous Reserve or SIR) under the proposed water plan. This was a subject of a separate research process, but views about this issue were included as a further example of Indigenous water values. The 25% allocation proposed in the draft plan was generally not considered enough and primary reasons given included:
- That Indigenous ownership systems consider land and water inseparable, and that economic rights are included in ownership.
- That Indigenous people also hold the majority of the land in the planning area under various forms of tenure (including Native Title and Land Rights).
- That Indigenous people comprise the majority of the planning area population.
This report was made available in time for the official public consultation period regarding the draft water plan. It directly facilitated understanding of Indigenous peoples' values, interests and aspirations in that context.
Report 2: Indigenous water management in the Upper Roper River, NT: history and implications for water planning
The second report was released in April 2012. It presented a rich and detailed combination of archival and fieldworkbased evidence about the construction of traditional weirs in the upper Roper, on the country of Mangarrayi speaking people. Constructed of paperbark and bush timber, these weirs were placed in strategic locations where the river naturally braids into a serious of narrow channels. The structures expanded the size and duration of swamps and billabongs lying upstream from the weir during the water-scarce late dry season, providing additional habitat for key food species, including fish, birds, reptiles and aquatic plants.
Downstream view of traditional weir adjacent to Red Lily Lagoon, 16/10/1938
Source: James Mannion. Image supplied by the Northern Territory Police Museum from the James Mannion Collection
Indigenous weir building adjacent to what was known as Red Lily Lagoon was encouraged and amplified by the owners and managers of Elsey Station (famous as the setting for 'We of the Never Never') in the pastoral era. This was because the weirs directed water to areas from which cattle were easily able to drink, preventing them from getting bogged in swamps and dying of exhaustion and starvation. However in 1946 the practice was legally challenged in the Supreme Court by the owner and manager of the Roper Valley Station, which lay downstream from Elsey Station. The challenge was successful, leading to a court-ordered ban on further weir building. The detailed archival record left by this case was described and analysed for the first time, whilst field investigations revealed that knowledge of the practice and its utility was retained amongst the Indigenous population of the area. It also showed that, despite the ban, weirs continued to be cooperatively built by Indigenous cattle workers and pastoralists on the adjacent Moroak Station from the early 1950s to the 1980s.
Canoeing on the Roper River. Credit: Margaret Giles, later Margaret Voller, 1940
Courtesy National Museum of Australia
In 2010, the technique was revived again on Elsey by local Mangarrayi elders and land managers for a new purpose: to address problems with erosion mitigation, drying swamps and rapidly diminishing water flows to downstream stations (including Moroak) due to significant recent changes in channel flow. The recently established Mangarrayi Rangers were a driving force in this action, and the community aspires to include traditional water knowledge and techniques as part of their ongoing wetland management strategy. This raises the questions of the rights and responsibilities of local Indigenous landowners and of what resources are available to them.
The research suggested two important questions:
- How do local Indigenous water planning, restoration and management articulate with broader government-driven water planning processes; and
- What are the implications of the Indigenous weirs for contemporary water planning categories?
Roper River and Red Lily wetlands. Credit: Courtesy of Mangarrayi Rangers
The weirs were intended to create areas of shallow standing water and evaporation from such areas would suggest that, at least in principle, such weirs are an important example of a traditional consumptive use. This undermines a common assumption that Indigenous interests are addressed simply through an environmental flow allocation (i.e. a non-consumptive allocation). The second report considers some preliminary legal, planning, and governance implications of the weirs and recommends future action to:
New erosion channel leading away from Janggan (McCracken's Hole), Elsey Station
- Clarify the contemporary legal status of traditional weir building.
- Consider how to incorporate weir building and customary wetland management into water planning;
- Consider appropriate Indigenous governance arrangements for local Indigenous consumptive uses in the context of governance by and Indigenous representative group constituted at the scale of regional water planning;
- Undertake Indigenous capacity building in the upper Roper, both at the general skills level and with respect to specific water and wetland management projects; and
- Investigate the substantial changes in erosion, river channel heights, and flow directions and plan management strategies for them.
Mulurark, Roper River
The first phase of this project aided public and policy understanding of Indigenous water values and interests at a crucial early phase of the planning cycle in a hydrologically significant area. The second phase uncovered uniquely detailed evidence of a continuing tradition of Indigenous water management. This evidence is of national interest and significance to water planning, water law, and research into Indigenous environmental management in the past, present, and future.
If you would like to know
more about the Roper
work please contact:
CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences
Phone: 08 8944 8420
NAWFA is a multidisciplinary program being delivered jointly by the Australian Government's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the National Water Commission, in close collaboration with the Office of Northern Australia and state and territory government agencies. Through the Raising National Water Standards program under Water for the Future, the Australian Government has allocated up to $13 million for projects between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012.