Monash University: Tapping into Aboriginal knowledge to create a water-resilient future for Australia’s cities

The Yarragadee is an underground aquifer beneath the Perth metropolitan area. Laying in thick layers of sand and porous rock, the youngest water in the aquifer is about 600 years old, the oldest more than 35,000.

The Whadjuk Noongar people believe the deepest aquifer is home to the spirit of the Waugal, or rainbow serpent.

The Waugal embodies the vital force of running water; its presence connects groundwater to the surface, in chains of wetlands that provide fresh water, food, and attract game.

The enduring presence of the Waugal connects the past and present, demanding care and respect from the Noongar custodians.

Australia’s First Nations peoples are highly diverse, but a spiritual and cultural connection to water is common to all language groups. Water is sacred to Aboriginal peoples, connecting and sustaining all living things.

Over 65,000 years, generations of Indigenous Australians proved their resilience to the continent’s extremes, responding to climatic and environmental changes, and solving problems of accessing water, disposing of waste, and living sustainably on Country.

Across Australia, two broad water-related principles developed among Aboriginal peoples – knowledge and mobility.

Wetland and riparian ecologies, and the flood risks associated with living water, are preserved in oral traditions that convey understanding of how the land works. Aboriginal people knew not to build camps on floodplains, and would warn white settlers of the dangers of doing so.

Following the water and its seasonal abundances, and adopting it as a means of transport, bound communities together across large tracts of Country.

These processes endured despite of the shock of colonisation. When the colonists arrived, they often looked to Aboriginal settlements as strategic and resource-rich sites, appropriate for their own settlements.

Though many Aboriginal people were killed by disease or violence, or forcibly relocated to reserves or missions, some continued to live in and around traditional campsites – all of which were associated with water sources.

White settlers who claimed possession of Australia brought a different set of values and technology, armed with limited knowledge of the environment and its constraints.

The newcomers’ approach was based on a process of occupation, advanced through land ownership and control.

“To ensure access to safe water and waste removal will require living within nature’s constraints, something the original inhabitants demonstrated for millennia, and which the newcomers are only belatedly learning.”

The colonists brought an aggressive determination to build societies that would dominate the original inhabitants, and manipulate the environment of what was seen as an “untouched” frontier.

Settler colonists gradually developed engineering solutions to water management problems, building dams to supply water, and sewerage and drainage systems that connected to waterways.

The benefits of this infrastructure were distributed unevenly; low-income housing areas, built on low-lying land that was vulnerable to flooding and pollution, were the last to be served with effective infrastructure.

Hard surfaces – rooftops and paving – altered natural drainage patterns. Australians demanded abundant water for gardens, and were usually complacent about their real water usage and its environmental consequences.

More than 15 million people, 60% of the national population, now live in Australia’s five largest cities. Higher-density urban settings and climate change are increasing pressure on Australians to adapt their use of water and the infrastructure built to move it.

Australians may need to rethink water-use strategies, including embracing centuries of Aboriginal knowledge, especially about how to view water as a resource to be conserved, rather than wasted or exploited.

As our understanding of the value of water in cities has evolved, a lesson to be learnt from the past is that all choices have consequences, for current and future generations.

The permanence of the built environment makes the effects of past infrastructure decisions long-lasting. To ensure access to safe water and waste removal will require living within nature’s constraints – something the original inhabitants demonstrated for millennia, and that the newcomers are only belatedly learning.

A new book, Cities in a Sunburnt Country, considers how Australians have met the challenges posed by the need to provide safe water in the world’s driest inhabited continent, and sewerage systems for rapidly growing, sprawling urban centres.

With expertise that spans environmental, economic, and urban history, a team of seven researchers (Margaret Cook, Lionel Frost, Andrea Gaynor, Jenny Gregory, Ruth A. Morgan, Martin Shanahan, and Peter Spearritt), use interdisciplinary perspectives to ask new questions of current approaches to water supply and management.

In this land of drought and flooding rains, tensions persist between managing problems of too little water in particular times and places, and too much water in others.