Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living with water forms, such as groundwater, and using and managing the resources of these water bodies by observing laws and cultural protocols, some of which continue to be expressed in stories and songs transmitted over many generations as a means to maintain them.

Groundwater is defined as water present beneath the land surface and which is held in pore spaces, fissures and cavities within the underlying soil and rock formations. However, many visible surface water features interact closely with the underlying groundwater systems; groundwater can discharge into and sustain the visible water bodies, and conversely surface water features can recharge into the underlying groundwater bodies.

There are many examples of the different forms of natural groundwater expression at the surface of the Australian landscape including permanent and semi-permanent water holes, springs, soaks and swamp environments.  These can be found everywhere from coastal areas, for example coastal swamps, to the desert interior, for example the mound springs of the Great Artesian Basin.  These environments provide not only water, but also an extensive range of aquatic and non-aquatic plant and animal food sources associated with the various types of groundwater environments.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living with these water and food resources since arrival in Australia and many elements of these resources feature in significant cultural practises and songlines.  These often describe the locations and capacities of the groundwater resource for passing on to others, but also detail behaviours required to ensure the sustainable management of the resources.

Groundwater is driven from areas of recharge, for example high rainfall in elevated areas, to areas of discharge which are generally low-lying, for example rivers and the coast.  Groundwater generally moves very slowly, perhaps a few metres per year, but can be stored below the surface in massive amounts covering very large areas. The Great Artesian Basin which extends across QLD, NT, NSW and SA is one of the largest groundwater basins in the world.  In these larger basins groundwater flow paths are very long and a drop of water can take thousands of years to flow from a recharge area to the point of discharge.  There are however many smaller basins throughout Australia, and there are also areas where groundwater flow paths are very short.  Examples of these include sand dune environments where fresh water springs can be developed for short durations following rainfall events.

Where groundwater resources are at or close to the land surface they can be at risk of contamination from a range of sources including human activity or the presence of dead fauna.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people developed a detailed knowledge of this vast range of groundwater environments across the country, and developed cultural practises to successfully utilise and manage these important resources.

Groundwater environments

A selection of the wide range of groundwater environments found throughout Australia are described below, together with the interactions by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  These descriptions are adapted from the Wetrocks resource1 and more detail regarding these, and many other groundwater environments, can be found in that document.

  • Desert waterholes – these features are often found within hill ranges in the arid interior of the country and are sustained by groundwater discharge. They remain long after creek and river flows have subsided following flood events and can be permanent to semi-permanent depending on climatic conditions.  Because of their size they are able to sustain large populations of people for long periods of time, attract a range of fauna food sources as well as sustaining a variety of flora.  These environments are therefore able to provide shelter and water, and support species used for food, medicine, tools and clothing.
  • Soaks and native wells – these are areas of groundwater discharge which can be located in many environments including ephemeral river beds, sand dunes and at the base of rocky outcrops.  They can range in scale from less than a metre across to many tens of metres.  Native wells describe the practise of accessing these resources including digging to expose greater volumes of, and better quality, water.  They could be filled with sticks, stones and even capped to reduce evaporation and prevent fouling.
  • Hanging swamps – an interesting example of a groundwater dependent ecosystem where rain percolating through rocky outcrops can discharge and from pools at altitude on exposed cliffs.  In higher rainfall areas they could be a virtually constant year-round source of water for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Subterranean cave systems – when the caves and caverns are eroded to a depth below the water table then these systems can allow access to usually reliable sources of good quality groundwater.  The Nullarbor Plains and some areas in the southeast of SA are underlain by limestone cave system which contains various water bodies.

An excellent resource which provides additional detailed descriptions and terminology of groundwater dependent ecosystems can be found on the Queensland Department of Environment and Science website2.

Groundwater in culture

It is not difficult to imagine the vital importance of groundwater environments to the survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; as a provider of almost everything required to not only survive but to flourish including water and food, medicines, tools and clothing.  It is not surprising then that these environments feature heavily in many songlines and dreaming stories.  These oral records contain not only the locations and capacities of the resources, but in many cases also provide guidance on how to manage and protect the resources.

The case of the Rainbow Serpent as creator of springs creeks and wetlands across vast areas of WA, NT and NSW is described in the Wetrocks resource3.  Many more similar songlines exist right across the country associated with groundwater features.

Art works are commonly found on rock walls adjacent to or near groundwater environments as these were often used as ceremonial gathering places and were therefore logical places to document information through the art work.  The desert waterholes of the NT are a prominent example of this.  Further detail on these cultural aspects of groundwater ecosystems can be found in the Wetrock resources.

Case studies around Australia

  • On Damut Island in the Torres Strait water in water holes was traditionally covered with sticks and wood to prevent evaporation by the sun and conserve water4
  • The Baiyungu people of the north West Australian coast traditionally preserved water supplies after rainfall by covering the water that collected in rock cavities with lids of flat pieces of limestone5
  • In the Gulf of Carpentaria the Kaiadilt people use the presence of recurring clumps of coastal sheoak trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) as signs of freshwater6
  • The Ngatatjara people of the Warburton Ranges in the Central Desert use the roots of the cork tree (Hakea macrocarpa) as a water source7
  • In the north central areas of South Australia the Yankunytjatjara  peoples place sand in water holes to reduce evaporation of water8
  • In coastal areas of Arnhem Land long hollow sections of bamboo were traditionally used to extract water from wells9

Classroom activity - Science Year 10

In this classroom activity, students will investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples knowledge of water management strategies is being used to inform contemporary groundwater issues. There are many current examples of issues affecting Australia’s water resources. Some examples include:

Students will investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional water management knowledge is informing how these issues are addressed. Student groups will prepare a short multimodal oral presentation to communicate their ideas and information.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • People use scientific knowledge to evaluate whether they accept claims, explanations or predictions, and advances in science can affect people’s lives, including generating new career opportunities (ACSHE194)
  • Communicate scientific ideas and information for a particular purpose, including constructing evidence-based arguments and using appropriate scientific language, conventions and representations (ACSIS208)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 10 in Science:

  • evaluate the validity and reliability of claims made in secondary sources with reference to currently held scientific views, the quality of the methodology and the evidence cited
  • construct evidence-based arguments and select appropriate representations and text types to communicate science ideas for specific purposes

Inquiry-based learning questions

  • Why were the watershed basins used as a template to define regions on the map of Indigenous Australia? (
  • What are some of the environmental indicators of a freshwater source that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use?
  • Why is the utilisation and management of groundwater resources important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
  • How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people minimise evaporation to conserve freshwater resources?
  • How does reliable access to water impact on the sustainability of a Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?

Activity 1 – The Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples informing contemporary water resource issues

Suggested timing for activity: (3-4 lessons; Lesson 1 – brainstorm, discussion and selection of issue for research; Lesson 2- student research; Lesson 3 – presentation preparation; Lesson 4 – presentations and discussion)

Required resources: (ie. research template, laptops/tablets and internet access, other research resources, whiteboard, whiteboard markers, presentation software)

  1. The teacher should facilitate a classroom brainstorming activity using contemporary issues affecting groundwater resources (either from those listed above or an issue pertinent to the local community) and manage a classroom discussion to build understanding of the water resource issues.
  2. Students in small, collaborative groups select a contemporary issue for further research and use classroom resources to investigate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s traditional ecological knowledge is being used to inform identification, management or resolution of the issue. Students can use the suggested resources provided above as a starting point for their research and use a research template (such as the one below) to collect information about the chosen issue.
  3. Students should collate the information from their research and develop a multimodal group presentation to communicate the scientific ideas and information to the class.
  4. Students present their research to the class. Compare the similarities and differences of traditional ecological knowledges that are being used to inform such contemporary issues. This builds understanding of the commonalities and diversities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples knowledges and application of contemporary water management.

Suggested Research Template

(Retrieved from


4 Jukes, J. B. (1847). Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of HMS Fly : During the Years 1842–1846. Volume 1. London : T. & W. Boone.

5 Kendrick, G. W., Morse, K. (1982). An Aboriginal Shell Midden Deposit from the Warroora Coast, Northwestern Australia. Australian Archaeology, (14), 6–12.

6 Tindale, N. B. (1962). Geographical knowledge of the Kaiadilt people of Bentinck Island, Queensland. Records of the South Australian Museum. 14 (2): 259-296.

7 Bayly, I. A. E (1999). Review of how indigenous people managed for water in desert regions of Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia. 82 (1), 17-25.

8 Gara, T. (1985). Aboriginal Techniques for Obtaining Water in South Australia. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia. 23(2), 2-11.

9 Clarke, P. A. (2012). Australian plants as Aboriginal Tools. Dural: Rosenberg Publishing.

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.