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Traditional water knowledge

Volume 6 Number 4 April 12 - May 3 2010

Supervisors Simon Fisher (left) and Simon Batterbury celebrate Lisa Watts’ PhD graduation.
Supervisors Simon Fisher (left) and Simon Batterbury celebrate Lisa Watts’ PhD graduation.

Dr Lisa Watts, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Melbourne’s School of Land and Environment, has revealed how traditional Indigenous knowledge can guide water management strategies. Nerissa Hannink reports.

As a 20-year-old Melbourne school teacher, Dr Lisa Watts could never have guessed she would call the Northern Territory home for the next 30 years. But eager to make a difference in Aboriginal education, she moved to the NT to work. Her postgraduate study has since led to her becoming a leader in the field of Aboriginal cultural and spiritual values to water, and their incorporation into water resource management.

Dr Watts’ PhD thesis arose from the issues faced by her family. Lisa married into the Warlpiri people of the Western Desert and was struck by their struggle to gain the rights to water held under pastoral leases.

“As the Warlpiri elders approached 90 years of age, they appointed my father-in-law, Simon Fisher and me to help pursue their movement for water governance,” says Lisa.

“Historically, these elders had lived in caves at Pikilyi prior to the arrival of white man and experienced first-hand the dispossession of their most valued water sources. They had been leading this struggle for 70 years and handed over this responsibility to us at a time when the families were feeling very disempowered.

“The traditional owners’ use of water sources dates back perhaps 60,000 years, one of the longest continuous cases of human management of water resources in human history. The loss of control of their water sources has resulted in the environmental degradation of their lands which was highly distressing for the elders. I saw that the lack of protection of water rights and loss of Warlpiri spiritual connection to their water sources was inextricably linked to the environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity in the Western Desert.”

Lisa and Simon began using scholarship, applied to justice to investigate Warlpiri relationships to water. Simon’s local knowledge and Lisa’s research skills led them to produce Australia’s first joint Masters Thesis including the cosmology of an area of Warlpiri land in central Australia and an environmental history of the dispossession of their most precious water sources on this land. It also looked at Warlpiri traditional practices of water management that enabled them to sustain life on one of the driest parts of the continent on earth since time immemorial. This precedent-setting Masters degree was awarded by Charles Darwin University (the then Northern Territory University) in 2001.

Following her Masters degree, Lisa still wanted to understand more about the radical transitions in land and water regimes in the Western Desert, especially the inequities in relations between the Indigenous and Western domain in Natural Resource Management models.

She says a book on political ecology literally fell out of a library shelf into her hands and she knew immediately that she had stumbled on a progressive field.

“The field focuses on investigating the social processes influencing environmental change and it fitted perfectly because it accommodated the struggles of environmental injustices from a Warlpiri perspective. Moreover, it encompasses a broad range of disciplines: environmental history, customary and statutory law, ethnography, anthropology, hydrogeology, ethnophysiography. This emerging field that investigates the differences and similarities in conceptualisations of landscapes, held by differing cultural groups through the ways in which landscape is important in both spirituality and traditional ways of knowing.”

Her thesis became a political ecological critique of Warlpiri water rights under the supervision of Simon Fisher, Dr Simon Batterbury, Director of the Office of Environmental Programs and Associate Professor Brian Finlayson from the School of Geography within the Melbourne School of Land and Environment.

Lisa’s work reveals the biophysical, social and cultural consequences resulting from the lack of protection of Warlpiri water rights.  This is explained through the social processes of environmental change which include the decline in Aboriginal land management practices, the absence of Aboriginal presence on pastoral leases, the legal and political precedence given to lessees, open grazing management practices and the proliferation of artificial watering points.

“My work has shown that the protection of Warlpiri water rights is critical to the sustainable management of Western Desert water sources.  The emerging water management strategy converges racially opposed worldviews that draw on both Warlpiri and Western knowledge systems and diverse belief systems to achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability.

“The aim is not to disregard either worldview, but to bring them together for the benefit of the local people and the environment.

“For example Indigenous people have a very, very good understanding of which surface waters are dependent or independent of groundwater systems; scientists and policy makers are now just recognising the significance of the interconnectedness between surface and groundwater.

“This is where Indigenous people can help to fill in the gaps of knowledge that science can’t unravel because they have actually used this water management system of linking the two for thousands of years.

“I frame it as Indigenous Groundwater Modelling and this is where the scientists really, really need help.”

Dr Watts’ has just recently completed work with the Anmatyerr people of the Central Desert and produced a documentary on Anmatyerr women’s cultural and spiritual values to water titled Mer Rwker – akert (Brooks Soak Country) that will be screened nationally on ABC under its Message Stick program later this year.

Her next focus is to work with the Aboriginal nations of the northern section of the Murray Darling Basin, where she claims that currently there is no customary governance. She believes that Indigenous water knowledge can be used to better manage the resources of the Murray Darling Basin. The key however, is to know how to bring the two worlds together.”