How To Keep The River Flowing


On a hot summer’s day in Mildura I was discussing the river sand mining industry with Muthi Muthi Elder Mary Pappin. She asked, "Is this what you do when you’ve killed everything on top: you take out the minerals from underneath and sell them?" Mary can always be counted on to go to the heart of the matter. 

Rarely reported in the current water debate are the experiences of the Aboriginal people whose ancestral country is the Murray River. They have as much to lose as anyone, if not more, with the devastation of the river country.

Aboriginal Elders have seen the Murray River change dramatically over their lifetimes. They remember when they could drink fresh water straight from the river. In the Barmah Forest, a river red gum wetland on the Murray River near Echuca, Yorta Yorta Elder Henry Atkinson told me how in the 1930s he lived with his family by eating and selling the native fish, mussels, Murray crayfish and turtles.

The Barmah-Millewa forest is perhaps the most well-known river red gum forest along the Murray. This forest is kept alive by the unseasonal water flows from an upstream dam to farms which rely on irrigated water. Further west on the dessicated floodplains of the arid country, the river red gum forests stand mute, grey and lifeless — a powerful image that has come to symbolise the destruction caused by the over-consumption of river water in a period of prolonged drought.

The traditional owners of the river country have responded to the water crisis by forming an alliance known as MLDRIN — the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations — along the Murray’s length. Ten traditional owner groups send two or more representatives to joint meetings which have also become a strategic forum for governments and others wishing to meet with some of the Murray’s first people.

This alliance is now into its second decade of communicating its concerns to governments and strategising its own water policies. I’ve been attending its meetings to see whether something can be learnt to help policymakers reconsider water management practices that have grossly failed our fresh water ecologies, our future food security, and the viability of farms and country towns established on the irrigation industries.

What I found at these meetings was that the different parties discussing river health assumed that they were all talking about the same thing when in fact they were talking past each other. When Yorta Yorta women Monica Morgan and Muthi Muthi Elder Jeanette Crew, both of whom have had a long association with MLDRIN, talk about this disjunction, they mention their gradual realisation that "natural resource management" wasn’t the same as "caring for country".

Where traditional owners from the Murray River see humans as part of the continuum of "country", the water managers were by-and-large seeing humans as essentially separate to and above the river — and in control of it.

Country is a term used by Aboriginal people to describe the critical importance of their relationships with their traditional lands. Beyond understanding humanity as embedded within ecological webs of life, country also encompasses history, culture, religion, law, language, and more. Looking after country is looking after yourself.

Thinking along these lines, the MLDRIN delegates have developed their own approaches to water management, including the new idea of cultural flows. Henry Atkinson described cultural flows at a meeting of key community stakeholders in the Murray-Darling Basin. He said: "Cultural flows are a natural flow which allows everything to grow. Cultural flows include your history and your culture." For Henry, water as "cultural flow" is the essential connecting life force in the river country, and by putting the needs of the river first, everything else is taken care of.

Henry’s perspective does not position the environment and agriculture as conflicting agendas, but emphasises the importance of respecting the Murray first, before human needs, including agriculture, can be met. Similarly, environmental commentators from all around the Murray-Darling Basin state that we have to reduce the over-allocation of river water if we wish to see both the survival of the Basin ecologies and a sustainable future for agriculture.

"Environmental flows" are a new policy response by governments to include water allocations for the environment in water management plans. This policy response acknowledges that there is a limit to how much water can be taken out of rivers for human consumption and that some water must be specifically allocated for river health. The federal government’s recent purchase of consumptive water licences to convert into environmental water allocations is the most explicit example of this policy in action.

Yet environmental flows are strongly contested by people who see "the environment" as a new competitor for scarce and expensive river water. Such arguments deny the fundamental logic that the river’s health is the source of the water. Still, even though environmental flows is an important policy, it has not challenged the existing decision-making framework: more is required than just adding the river to the list of water users.

The people who have spent their lives next to the rivers are now witnessing the loss of a river culture which they cannot pass on to their children. No longer can we find sustenance when camping by these billabongs. Indeed, at some places we are warned not to touch the water because it has become a toxic acidic mix. This landscape is no longer capable of inspiring the poetry which celebrates our national culture.

A healthy river supports both our ecologies and our economies; a failing river offers neither and its toxicity threatens and kills life. But to argue for the Murray as the key life force in the current context is to enter water management debates as a maverick, speaking a discordant language that jars with the dominant discourse focused on securing water allocations and more efficient water use.

The conceptual leap that would allow people to understand what Henry, Mary, Monica, Jeanette and other MLDRIN members are saying about prioritising the life of country is not possible in discussions limited to a resource management practice which diverts, stores and allocates quantities of water. By not fitting in, the contributions Aboriginal people are making have been largely ignored or dismissed either as spiritual fancy or unscientific (or both).

When the MLDRIN members talk about the primacy of country they are not being sentimental or irrelevant; they make an argument that resonates with common sense, scientific evidence, and the inherent productivity of living, healthy rivers. So, yes, I did find that there is something policymakers can learn here but I also think that until policymakers examine the dominant understandings of water, they will have a lot of trouble hearing what MLDRIN has to say.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.