The scope of the Inland water chapter is largely based on the scope of material presented in the 2011 and 2016 reports. However, the 2021 state of the environment report represents a new phase in environmental reporting with Indigenous co-authors, drawing on the significant emerging body of data and scholarship on Indigenous perspectives of water and traditional knowledge. The inclusion of an Indigenous perspective in the Inland water chapter allows some of the oldest water stories and values on Earth to be integrated into reporting on the state of the environment.

In including Indigenous perspectives, the state of the environment report responds to a series of recommendations made in the Productivity Commission’s report on the National Water Initiative; Indigenous people’s challenge of access to highly significant water places and reduction in water entitlements; and the aspirations inherent in the Murray–Darling Basin Plan and the Water Act 2007 (Cth) with partnerships between Traditional Owners and environmental water organisations.


Grey literature searches were conducted, sourcing libraries and journals with Indigenous special issues, and searching Google Scholar and Web of Knowledge using the search terms ‘Aboriginal water’ and ‘(topic)’. Additional searches were made of national, state and territory agency websites; the Productivity Commission; the Murray–Darling Basin Authority; the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office; previous state of the environment reports; water-planning instruments; related journal articles and annual reports; and relevant policies and programs.

Cultural indicators

Access to drinkable water sources is essential to many Indigenous communities and can be affected by overextractions, pollution, and diversion of surface water and groundwater. Ecological and cultural health of wetlands, rivers and groundwater springs is critically important to Indigenous communities in terms of aquatic fauna and flora values, and cultural values associated with identity, language and spirituality. Indigenous perspectives emphasise linkages between water and all parts of the landscape: land, sky, species, fire and heritage (both tangible and intangible). Building a framework to collect and measure cultural indicators and the impact on Country from an Indigenous methodology has significant benefits for reporting on the state of the environment. Some indicators and data cannot be reported on because no jurisdiction or agency is collecting this information.

The collection of cultural indicators will address long-term issues in bicultural, cross-cultural and 2-world research. In 2018, the reviewed and updated Australian and New Zealand guidelines for fresh and marine water quality provided guidance for collecting and reporting on cultural spiritual values. This was supported by Indigenous principles to assist in understanding the relationships that Indigenous people have with water quality.

For Indigenous people, water is an intrinsic part of the landscape (connecting to land and sky) that also holds vast social, cultural and economic importance. This understanding is difficult to align with quantitatively focused, western-style water management, which separates components of the landscape. Initiatives can be instituted on several scales. Advancing Indigenous cultural and environmental rights and obligations includes practical and operational opportunities, as well as larger-scale commitments such as establishing a framework for cultural indicators.

Benefits of developing cultural indicators are extensive; they include:

  • promoting Aboriginal people’s rights and their ability to speak with authority on and about Country
  • increasing the understanding of cultural values and perspectives when dealing with land and water managers
  • clearly identifying potential cultural or other conflicts
  • building Aboriginal people’s research skills
  • advancing the prioritisation of culturally significant sites and places
  • providing a formal basis for monitoring and measuring trends on the cultural health status of Country, and for identifying further projects and partnerships.

A framework for cultural indicators for cultural water and cultural burning was recommended in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) 2019 state of the environment report at recommendation 7 (Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment 2019). It is built around an information agreement that promotes research and international exchanges on cultural mapping, aids access to public lands, promotes the collection of and access to data, and ensures the return of data to Ngunnawal people.

Fundamentally, a framework for cultural indicators would also build structural security into who holds Indigenous information for future use, addressing one of the long-term issues around cross-cultural research agendas and processes. Potential indicators are found in the work of Nursey-Bray and the Arabana people from South Australia (Nursey-Bray & Arabana Aboriginal Corporation 2015).

The following steps provide an indication of how the process might be undertaken:

  • Identify potential cultural indicators (water, land, fire and pressure/threat).
  • Workshop the suitability of indicators with Ngunnawal people (if in the ACT).
  • Establish a research agreement with Ngunnawal people and researchers.
  • Select cultural indicators with Ngunnawal people.
  • Ngunnawal people map cultural indicators on Country, score the health of Country and identify the threats.
  • Identify data that match each cultural indicator.
  • Report against the cultural indicators, actions and knowledge data.
  • Recommend management strategies to address indicators with poor cultural health.
  • Undertake ongoing monitoring and evaluation for the health of cultural indicators.