Indigenous voices in water

Indigenous voices in water

Aboriginal Waterways Assessment is a tool that documents the way Aboriginal people value and use water, to assist in sharing knowledge, to communicate their water values, and help advocate for their needs in water management.

Documenting Aboriginal water values and knowledge

To Aboriginal peoples, water is life. On a dry continent like Australia, fresh water is of the utmost importance. The water in rivers sustains important plants on riverbanks, and sustains wetlands where fish and turtles breed. Aboriginal peoples in the past used water from rivers for all their water needs - drinking, fishing, and washing. As well as using the water, spending time on rivers and billabongs is central to intergenerational knowledge and cultural transfer, and family time. There are thousands of years of memories in these water places. There are also many sacred places on rivers and in waterholes, such as resting places of the Rainbow Serpent, Mundagarra, and important cultural places such as mens and womens places, e.g. birthing places.

Sustainable water use

The traditional way of life was centred around ensuring use of all resources was sustainable, and water is a significant part of that balance. In traditional ways of managing the health of country, there is no strict separation of water, land, air, plants and animals, as all are perceived as interconnected. They are managed as a whole to keep country healthy. In recent decades, water has been managed by the government separately from the way the land is managed, and as a resource or commodity that can be bought and sold, no longer belonging to the river itself. What this means is water is sold to those who have the most money to pay for it and often stored out of the river, rather than seeing it distributed to where it is needed in rivers and wetlands to sustain plants and animals.

Aboriginal people today are very concerned that the rivers are sick. One example is the rivers and wetlands of the Murray Darling River basin1. This has been a highly politicised topic in the media and in politics in recent years. The first key problem is there is not enough water, due to a combination of water extraction for farming and severe drought2, made worse by climate change. The second problem is that the water is sick, the rivers are sick, because of the effects of land clearing and pollution from industry and agriculture3.

The Aboriginal Waterways Assessment (AWA) is used by Aboriginal communities to measure the health of rivers and wetlands across the Murray Darling Basin4. The AWA was tested and modified in communities in Deniliquin, Walgett, the Victorian Alps, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.

Balance of power

Since colonisation, Aboriginal peoples have not typically been included in the management and distribution of water. This is mostly because other parties such as industries and irrigators have more time and resources to devote to understanding complex water legislation, and attending meetings to assert their needs. Due to a history of dispossession and marginalization, relatively few Aboriginal people are landholders, with fewer resources to be vocal about their water needs and a diminished sense of power in the community. In addition, historically, arguments in favour of sustainability over profit have been difficult to sell. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also feel a deep responsibility to look after water, make sure it is healthy and fit to drink for their people and for those people living downstream of them, and they have the knowledge of how it has been carefully managed for thousands of years.

Having water to drink and for cultural and spiritual purposes is a basic human right, one that Australia has ratified under international agreements5Terra Nullius is a familiar concept that was applied to this land as though it belonged to no one. Native Title goes some way to compensate for this, but does not include water rights. It is difficult to look after the land without water to live, garden, or sustain natural ecosystems, whilst having a source of income to do so. Aqua Nullius is a term that has recently been coined for water rights, similar to the way Native Title provides land rights.

Aboriginal Waterways Assessment - a tool

The AWA tool is designed to assess the health of rivers and waterways and wetlands in a consistent way, from the perspective of Traditional Owners. The assessment tool was adapted for Australian Aboriginal Traditional Owners from the original Cultural Health Index developed by a Maori researcher in New Zealand. Under state and federal legislation, e.g. Murray Darling Basin Plan 2012, water managers must consider Aboriginal cultural and spiritual values of water. AWAs are intended to assist with incorporating these values into government management of water6.

AWA tool serves a citizen science and cultural and social function. The tool goes through a series of questions that allows Traditional Owners to get together on country to complete worksheets, and in the process share information and stories. Each site is given a score and the information is used to produce maps, reports and charts that show the health of different sites within their traditional area, taking into account the importance of each location assessed, and its current health. It can be repeated at a later date and the results compared to assess whether health has improved or declined. The process produces a report the Traditional Owner group owns and can use to their benefit, such as applying for landcare grants and using it as a document to advocate for Traditional Owner water needs and goals7. The current tool is the result of extensive research to formulate appropriate questions to record the right knowledge, but is low-tech, using mainly paper forms and MS Excel to graph results.

The AWA tool is based on a partnership approach that facilitates collaboration between water management agencies and Aboriginal organizations. The goal is to assist in developing long term pathways for Aboriginal people to have meaningful input to waterway planning8.

The final reports are the intellectual property of the individual groups/nations that produced them, and are not publicly available. This enables the Traditional Owners the opportunity to tell their own stories, and to control and be involved in how their information is used, leading to more culturally appropriate outcomes. This also gives Traditional Owners the opportunity to document their important information for use within their own community, as well as controlling what information can be shared more widely.

When designing tools and programs for use in communities, it is important to take time to properly consult with the communities that are going to be affected by their outcomes. The most important part of this is listening to what their priorities and challenges are, and what they want to get out of it. These can easily be different from what they are assumed to be. This kind of evaluation or community consultation process increase the chances of the program being successful, and getting the best outcomes for the community9.

Classroom activity - Technologies (Design and Technologies) Years 9 and 10

Students will watch the video on how the Aboriginal Waterways Assessments were developed, their purpose and how they have been used. Students can then consider what content might be useful in a tool like this, including visiting a water place and testing the process. They can then make designs for an app that would make a tool like this accessible to a wider audience and practical for use in the bush.

Curriculum connections

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

  • Explain how products, services and environments evolve with consideration of preferred futures and the impact of emerging technologies on design decisions (ACTDEK041
  • Critique needs or opportunities to develop design briefs and investigate and select an increasingly sophisticated range of materials, systems, components, tools and equipment to develop design ideas (ACTDEP048)
  • Evaluate design ideas, processes and solutions against comprehensive criteria for success recognising the need for sustainability (ACTDEP051)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in Technologies (Design and Technologies):

  • explain how people working in design and technologies occupations consider factors that impact on design decisions and the technologies used to produce products, services and environments
  • evaluate the features of technologies and their appropriateness for purpose for one or more of the technologies contexts
  • create designed solutions for one or more of the technologies contexts based on a critical evaluation of needs or opportunities
  • create and connect design ideas and processes of increasing complexity and justify decisions
  • select and use appropriate technologies skilfully and safely to produce high-quality designed solutions suitable for the intended purpose

Activity 1 – Explore and critique the tool

Suggested timing for activity: 15 min to introduce topic, 15 min or longer to troubleshoot format and formulate questions

Required resources: Handout sheet, notebooks, pens

  1. Watch the video on AWAs:
  2. Formulate ideas on what format questions might be useful, e.g. What kind of questions can be answered with multiple choice or ticking several boxes from a list?
  3. Compile a list of questions regarding river health. Questions include things like:
    1. How has this place been used in the past?
    2. Do you still use it now? If so, how often?
    3. Is fishing similar to years ago; how has it changed?
    4. Can you drink the water? Did you previously drink the water?
  4. Consider the end product in terms of an output or summary of the information collected  – what information is needed, what questions need to be answered? Who is this information for? What format should it be in?
  5. Will photos taken on country be used in the output?

Activity 2 – Waterways: understanding the context

Suggested timing for activity: One lesson

Required resources: Notebooks and pens

Take the class to a nearby river, creek, beach, or other natural area ideally with water to test-run the tool developed in Activity 1, and understand the context in which the designed solution will be used.

  1. In small groups or individually, drawing on your own experiences around water, memories, etc., answer the list of questions and make any other notes needed.
  2. Rate the site on how important it is culturally (1-10), and rate it on how healthy it is in your eyes (1-10). Note it might still be very important culturally, even if it is currently not very healthy.
  3. Imagine a place that has been important to your family for generations. Your ancestors may be buried nearby. Your grandmother was born just upstream from here. Your totem, yellowbelly, lives in the big deep hole opposite, and you are personally responsible for looking after him. This cultural background doesn’t always fit in with western way of thinking and business models. How can you improve this tool to help communicate the importance of water to non-Indigenous people?

Activity 3 – Design a cultural health app

Suggested timing for activity: One or more lessons, plus homework if required

Required resources: Notebooks and pens, computers/devices, graphic software or poster-sized paper and drawing materials

Drawing on recent experience at the river, explore how using technology could change the usefulness role and end product of the AWA tool, as well as build intergenerational relationships.

  1. Design an app using for Traditional Owners to use on Country, to record the relative cultural health of their important sites.
  2. Describe what the app would achieve and steps for planning and designing the app. Students could provide mock-up of layout or other examples, using graphic visualisation software or poster-sized drawings.
  3. Consider design elements for ease of use for information input on a mobile device whilst out in the bush, e.g. button size, multiple choice to limit keyboard input, colours to improve contrast in glary/sunny conditions, size of text.
  4. Life cycle thinking – how might feedback be incorporated to improve the app? Which parts would need to stay the same for consistency, so that future results can be compared to previous results?
  5. How can you make it accessible and easy to use?
  6. How can you safeguard the intellectual property of Traditional Owners?
  7. How will the output from the app look, e.g. a report? What format might it be in, and how will it summarise the information collected?
  8. Discuss processes you can use to ensure you are getting the right outcome for Traditional Owners? E.g. community consultation.


1 Moggridge, B. (2018) Aboriginal Water Initiative. Retrieved from

2 Murray Darling Basin Authority (2019) Fish deaths in the Lower Darling. Retrieved from

3 We need more than just extra water to save the Murray-Darling Basin. (2017, June) Retrieved from

4 Please note in the context of Aboriginal Waterways Assessments (AWAs), Aboriginal peoples refers to Australian Aboriginal groups, because the AWA tool has been designed specifically for Aboriginal needs in mainland communities. Torres Strait Islander peoples have their own important unique connections to water.

5 Australian Human Rights Commission (2008) Native Title Report 2008, Chapter 6. Retrieved from

6 Murray Darling Basin Authority (2015) Aboriginal Partnership Programs. Retrieved from

7 Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (n.d.) Aboriginal Waterways Assessment. Retrieved from  (

8 Video conference notes 27 October 2016 - Indigenous ecology. (2016) Retrieved from

9 Aboriginal people’s water needs in the Queensland Murray Darling Basin (2018) Retrieved from

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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.