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The Water Modelling Pipeline through a Cultural Lens

What is your first memory of water? Bath time? Swimming lessons? Fun gathering with family and friends at the beach or by the river? Water is central to our lives as earth dwellers, and for as far back as the stories tell, water connects us. Remembering the value and meaning of water to you may not be what gets you out of bed to manage, model or regulate water but, it forms the foundation for all the work we do as water professionals. To peer at the water modelling pipeline through a Cultural lens, is to consider these deeply rooted values and explore how they intersect with water management decisions, frameworks, policies and modelling outcomes.

The UNEP’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) highlights our arrival at a time where universally, professionals appreciate that experts are only as good as their capacity to collaborate with other specialists. Re-framing our view to peer through a holistic lens, embracing land, biodiversity, people, and culture, is now considered the only way forward for restoring our planet home. So, how do we do that? We start at the beginning – we listen.

Image: Sketch note of event by Hayley Langsdorf from Thoughts Drawn Out. Click here for a detailed view

On 27 October 2022, more than 50 water professionals gathered online from across Australian and New Zealand consultancies, universities, local state, and federal government agencies and NRM groups to listen and share with Aboriginal colleagues and friends, rooted deeply to the value of land and water. Phil Duncan (Gomeroi man, Alluvium, Australian Rivers Institute), Michelle Hobbs (Bidjara descendant, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University) Ashleigh Faranda (Quandamooka woman, Alluvium) and Jason Wilson (Gomilaroi and Youalaroi man, Commonwealth Environmental Water Office) joined the IWC engagement team to co-design and deliver this event and help express the Indigenous voices missing from water management.

This event included a panel session, men’s and women’s Yarning Circles, followed by an introduction to the listening project led by Bec Barnett (Relative Creative) and Tahlia Rossi (Water Technology) Incorporating First Nations Land Management into Technical Approaches to Water Modelling: A Pilot Study to Establish Frameworks to Incorporate Indigenous Knowledge, funded by the Department of Environment and Science (QWMN). We concluded this online workshop with an open discussion among all participants.

For a link to the workshop recording please visit: https://watercentre.zoom.us/rec/share/-g7FTV2n0NtZ8CfZ9bVgzVwl6SYekNi0cXv_OIySOwkAWnuA_eu94uJc0omvuL22.78DNvBdyDgqplHpW
Passcode: V5=dCrNb 


Opening Panel session

Piet Filet and Brian McIntosh briefly opened discussions before handing over to Phil Duncan to Acknowledge Country. Phil began with a poem to set the scene for the event and took a moment to highlight the importance of Aboriginal women’s voices. To Indigenous peoples, the significance of water is far greater than its provision of food, drinking water, cleansing and a place to gather; it also holds a spiritual significance which, until recently has been denied by Western approaches. In part of his storytelling, Jason Wilson described how his people see water mapped in the stars, where the dark space is the free-flowing connectivity of waters, and the stars are gatherings of his ancestors around campfires. Stories like this make up the Dreaming that connects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to belonging to Country. Incorporating this kind of knowledge might seem challenging but, it is a type of science – Cultural Science – that involves sharing experiences, knowledge and methods to benefit communities and the environment.


Yarning Circles

To honour the process, the Yarning Circles were closed conversations. Men and women were provided an opportunity to openly discuss their thoughts on water separately and were invited to share highlights back to the main group. The outcomes of each discussion were as different as the sexes – women enjoyed a deep, personal dive into the value of water for healing, immersion, fun, belonging and its restorative nature, whilst the men went hunting for answers around engagement, diversity, trust and investing time to understand.


Project Overview

The project led by Relative Creative’s Bec Barnett and Tahlia Rossi from Water Technology – Incorporating First Nations Land Management into Technical Approaches to Water Modelling: A Pilot Study to Establish Frameworks to Incorporate Indigenous Knowledge seeks to understand and address gaps within the water planning process to ensure that First Nations Land Management practices can be effectively integrated, alongside relevant models, into landscape rehabilitation and resilience. During this session Bec and Tahlia provided an opportunity to explore the gaps and barriers when seeking to access Aboriginal knowledge as project coordinators. The outcomes from the Mentimeter can be found here


Image: Phil Duncan on Gomeroi Country supplied by Phil

Key points that emerged from these sessions

What is Caring for Country?

The Australian landscape has been a managed one, not a natural one for millennia. Since time immemorial, Aboriginal peoples have taken great pride in Caring for Country with individuals, families, clans and nations assigned animal and plant totems representing vital obligations and responsibilities to care for their Country. It is sacred Lore that runs deep among Indigenous peoples and is not defined by “modern” council and state jurisdictional borders. As custodians, we each are play a part in a much bigger system, connecting past, present and future. Much like the flow of waters from mountains to the ocean, there is a continuity of things that links what happens in one place to every other. These obligations and responsibilities begin with the ancestors who provided the abundance enjoyed today and for those who come after, to have access to the same.

What constitutes meaningful engagement?

Bring your WHOLE self – Showing up as your whole self, (not just the one that identifies you as a professional) is paramount for developing a trusting bond with any other. Especially for Indigenous peoples (globally in fact), this idea is linked to perceiving how someone ticks. By showing up as our whole self, we return to our personal experience, engage in the present, and invite trust to develop. The principles are simple: listen and share and invest time to effectively engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Listen to understand – By hearing and sharing personal stories, we expand our awareness of the meaning and values that motivates another in their life and actions. Language can be a barrier to connecting with other cultures Making sure there is time to listen to personal stories to understand another’s values, is an opportunity to develop a trusting relationship that will remain with, and follow you (not your organisation).

Share your story – Speak from your own experience and tell your story. We all have personal connections to water. When it comes to water management, this could be your story about what water means to you or how important your role in water protection and management is to you. Relationships are built on trust that develops when we genuinely show up. Asking questions and sharing from your authenticity is the most effective way to build lasting and trusting relationships.

There is always enough time – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are a storytelling cultures. Like the value we draw from sharing time with family and friends, Indigenous communities and the individuals that make them up, value quality time together.  It can be easy for the “Western” way of thinking to forget that project timelines are often not relevant to a community. Engaging early and providing sufficient time throughout a project’s life, is essential for community and project synergies and outcomes whilst developing and maintaining ongoing trust.


Participant Questions

During the final session of this online workshop, participants shared back to the whole group, highlights that emerged from the Yarning Circles and an open space for reflection was encouraged. Some key questions that emerged from this discussion include:

Opportunities to Explore

Some key opportunities on how we continue this journey of incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ values with water management practices came out of this online session including:

  • Getting out onto Country to connect to place and unravel some of the mysteries through Dadirri (deep listening) with the landscape, the rivers and streams, the wildlife and plants – there are messages everywhere. Dadirri is explained further here by Miriam Rose Foundation
  • Improve existing and develop new policies, guidelines and frameworks that identify the limitations between environmental, cultural and Western science and seek solutions through open, collaborative dialogue.
  • More listening and learning session with a focus on Aboriginal women’s voices


For the QWMN engagement team at the International Water Centre, this was our first dive into this rich conversation, and though it seemed daunting at first, the discussion opened the door on collaboration with our Aboriginal friends and colleagues for what we anticipate will be many more discussions and workshops.

The task of including Cultural wisdom into modern science practices may seem complex, but at its root it is fundamentally human. The key to progress in this space, lies in coming home to yourself, opening up to authentic relating – person-to-person, and listening to understand. As Phil Duncan said, “we are better when we are together”.

For a link to the workshop recording please visit: https://watercentre.zoom.us/rec/share/-g7FTV2n0NtZ8CfZ9bVgzVwl6SYekNi0cXv_OIySOwkAWnuA_eu94uJc0omvuL22.78DNvBdyDgqplHpW
Passcode: V5=dCrNb 

If you have any questions or comments about this session, please contact the QWMN engagement team via [email protected]

We honour and pay respects to Jagera and Turrbal lands, and Elders past, present and those yet to arrive extending that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, everywhere. 

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