Teacher background information


Year 7 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

Some of Earth’s resources are renewable, including water that cycles through the environment, but others are non-renewable (ACSSU116 - Scootle )

  • exploring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ connections with, and valuing of, water and water resource management (OI.2, OI.3)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long held a deep knowledge and understanding of water as a renewable resource cycling through the environment. However, there are risks to the sustainability of the water supply available for drinking and for environmental and agricultural uses. Some of these risks can be minimised through the application of management practices informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ detailed and comprehensive understanding of water flows, and of the impact that water use may have on downstream ecosystems. 

Australia’s waterways have undergone dramatic changes as result of European colonisation. Rivers have been transformed by land clearing and by damming to divert water for agriculture, industry and human consumption. Schemes such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme have significantly altered both the flow rate of water through the environment, as well as the amount of water available in different locations. These changes have had a profound long-term effect on the ecology of these riverine and riparian ecosystems. This in turn is of great significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as custodians of country, and in terms of the impact on cultural continuity.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have deep connections to country in its totality, placing significant socio-cultural, economic and environmental values on the land, and also its associated water sources and other water features. These connections extend to the custodial responsibilities in managing the inter-related parts of their traditional estates in a sustainable way. 

Australia contains a broad range of ecological environments, including water sheds. Each environment has its own unique hydrological and geological features that determine water cycling. Associated with these particular environments are specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural groups who, over millennia, have developed strategies for sustainably managing water and aquatic resources. These strategies and understandings are specific to the way water cycles through their respective environments. 

The deeply held understandings regarding water cycling through the environment were and continue to be essential knowledge that has historically been crucial to the access of potable water. Beyond maintaining essential water supply, water ways are also a crucial source of a vast range of resources, including produce and materials necessary for every-day life. 

The pragmatic understandings of the critical nature of water ways and their essential function for providing resources underpinned a system of custodial obligations and commitments, including inter-group agreements that ensured the sustainability of each community and the continued access to healthy water ways. 

Healthy water ways contain abundant aquatic resources, such as fish, birds, molluscs and crustaceans. They also contain many important aquatic plants that provide a source of food and raw materials for a range of contemporary purposes.  

In order to maintain access to these resources, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long manipulated and influenced water flows in a number of innovative ways. These included extensively engineered weirs, small dams and fish traps. A well-known example of water-way manipulation is the Brewarrina Stone Fish traps on what is today known as the Barwon River in north-central New South Wales. Some researchers believe that these traps are the oldest extant man-made structure on Earth. Also, channels have been excavated to allow fish to be farmed by moving them on to floodplains or into a system of small artificial ponds. In a similar fashion, fish traps with multiple pens are common in the Torres Strait. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples recognised that such interventions required careful consideration of water flows, especially of perennial freshwater systems, as they involve not only an obligation to maintain the local ecosystem, but also a responsibility to those living downstream. Such practices are considered recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understandings of hydrological processes, including awareness of how water cycles through an interconnected series of both surface and subterranean flows. 

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in freshwater-poor regions, traditional knowledge of the water supplies available locally was passed down through generations via oral instruction including, at times, stylised mapping. This knowledge is crucial in ensuring survival. Many Torres Strait Islander communities have, for thousands of years, successfully managed severe fresh-water supply issues, carefully collecting rainwater in a variety of ways. In desert areas, where rainfall is sporadic, Aboriginal peoples draw on their knowledge of a variety of water sources to meet their needs. These sources include riverine waterholes, soakage-wells in permeable sediments, flooded rock holes (known as gnammas, a Nyungar word from south-west Western Australia), rainwater accumulated in tree hollows and even water from the body of the water-holding frog (Cyclorana platycephala). 

Managing water resources in a sustainable way is of paramount importance to First Nations’ Australians, and increasingly, more Australians are becoming aware of the need to develop a water-governance framework that is inclusive of First Nations’ Australians’ perspectives and shaped by customary relationships and traditional knowledge.  

Water is an essential aspect of the beliefs, practices and cultures of First Nations’ Australians. This is not only demonstrated through the records of hydrological knowledge held and transmitted through paintings, stories and ceremonies, but is also evident in the richness of terms and concepts relating to water in all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. 

As students investigate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' knowledge of, connections with and values about water and water resource management, they have opportunities to develop an understanding of the need to build cross-cultural collaborative research and management partnerships in the environmental water sector. They also have the opportunity to improve their understanding of the social and economic significance of water to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Bandler, H. (1995). Water resources exploitation in Australian prehistory environment. Environmentalist, 15(2), 97-107.

Barber, M., & Jackson, S. (2011). Aboriginal water values and resource development pressures in the Pilbara, northwestern Australia. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 32-50.

Bayly, I. A. E. (1999). Review of how indigenous people managed for water in desert regions of Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 82, 17-25.

Behrendt, J., & Thomson, P. (2004). The recognition and protection of Aboriginal interests in N.S.W. Rivers. Journal of Indigenous Policy, (3), 37-140.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. (2016). Indigenous socio-economic values and river flows. Retrieved from https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/LWF/Areas/Ecosystems-biodiversity/Managing-landscapes-for-biodiversity/Indigenous-NRM/Aboriginal-water-values

Cooper, D., & Jackson, S. (2008). Preliminary study in Indigenous water values and interests in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory. Darwin, NT: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Sustainable Ecosystems.

Dumont d’Urville, J. S. C. (1987). Two voyages to the south seas.  In H. Rosenman, (Ed. and Trans.), Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Finn, M., & Jackson, S. (2011). Protecting Indigenous values in water management: A challenge to conventional environmental flow assessments. Ecosystems, 14(8), 1232-1248. doi:10.1007/s10021-011-9476-0

Gratani, M., Sutton, S. G., Butler, J. R., Bohensky, E. L., & Foale, S. (2016). Indigenous environmental values as human values. Cogent Social Sciences, 2(1), 1185811.

Haddon, A. C. (1935). Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits: Vol. 1.  General Ethnography. London: Cambridge University Press.

Humphries, P. (2007). Historical Indigenous use of aquatic resources in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, and its implications for river management. Ecological Management & Restoration, 8(2), 106-113. doi:10.1111/j.1442-8903.2007.00347.x

Jackson, S. (2006). Compartmentalising culture: The articulation and consideration of Indigenous values in water resource management. Australian Geographer, 37(1), 19-31. doi:10.1080/00049180500511947

Jackson, S., & Morrison, J. (2007). Indigenous perspectives in water management, reforms and implementation. In S. Dovers & K. Hussey (Eds.), Managing water for Australia: The social and institutional challenges. Collingwood, Victoria: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Publishing.

Jackson, S., Storrs, M., & Morrison, J. (2005). Recognition of Aboriginal rights, interests and values in river research and management: Perspectives from northern Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration, 6(2), 105-110. doi:10.1111/j.1442-8903.2005.00226.x

Maclean, K., Bark, R. H., Moggridge, B., Jackson, S., & Pollino, C. (2012). Ngemba water values and interests: Ngemba old mission billabong and Brewarrina Aboriginal fish traps (Baiame’s Ngunnhu).  Australia: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. https://doi.org/10.4225/08/584d948534b2d

McLean, J. (2013). Still colonising the Ord River, northern Australia: A postcolonial geography of the spaces between Indigenous peoples and settlers' interests. The Geographical Journal, 180(3), 198-210. doi:10.1111/geoj.12025

New South Wales Government. (n.d.). Aboriginal issues and cultural heritage protection (No 14). Retrieved from http://www.water.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/548100/policy_advice_14-aboriginalissues.pdf

Riverspace. (2017). Baiame's Ngunnhu: Brewarrina fish traps. Retrieved from http://www.riverspace.com.au/item/baiames-ngunnhu-brewarrina-fish-traps/

Salleh, A. & ABC Science Online. (2003, March 13). Aborigines may have farmed eels, built huts.  Science Online. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2003/03/13/806276.htm

Shnukal, A. (2004). The post-contact created environment in the Torres Strait Central Islands. In Memoirs of the Queensland Museum Cultural Heritage Series 3, 317-346.

Sydney Water. (n.d.). Aboriginal people and water: How water is used (Stage 2 Focus area). Retrieved from http://www.sydneywater.com.au/SW/education/index.htm

Toussaint, S., Sullivan, P., & Yu, S. (2005). Water ways in Aboriginal Australia: An interconnected analysis. Anthropological Forum, 15(1), 61-74. doi:10.1080/0066467042000336715

Woodward, E., & Marrfurra McTaggart, P. (2015). Transforming cross-cultural water research through trust, participation and place. Geographical Research, 54(2), 129-142. doi:10.1111/1745-5871.12136