Indigenous water requirements for the Martuwarra

6 December 2021

The Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) in Western Australia has sustained Indigenous people and their societies for millennia. The Fitzroy catchment makes up a large part of the West Kimberley National Heritage Place, listed for its outstanding cultural and natural values. Its waters – including rivers, floodplain wetlands, springs and other waterbodies including aquifers – are of great importance to Aboriginal people of the catchment.

There is increased interest in developing the water resources of the Fitzroy River to enable the expansion of irrigated agriculture. This will require more appropriate water governance and management. Any water-allocation plan needs to recognise that Aboriginal people do not just require a certain volume of water flowing through the river – they also need authority and voice in matters affecting water.  The maintenance of custodial relationships and improvement of their quality of life are key to meeting the water needs of Traditional Owners.

Elderly Aboriginal woman walks down towards the banks of the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) on a sandy bank with more vegetation visible on the other side of approximately 50m of water.

Josephine Forrest and Likil. Photo: Sarah Laborde © Josephine Forrest.

The ‘living waters’ model

This Northern Australia Hub project, led by researchers at Griffith University, produced a framework – the ‘living waters’ model – that illustrates fundamental differences in the knowledge and values held by Traditional Owners and government water managers. This framework depicts the reciprocal relationships between people, other beings (including plants, animals and ancestral beings) and the waters of the Martuwarra.

Living waters and traditional water resource model

All relationships are mutual (two-way) in the living waters model (left), which also includes a dimension that does not appear in modern water-resource models (right) – that of ancestral beings. Orange arrows in the living waters model represent connections that are not generally considered by modern water-resource models.

The project also made some recommendations for water planners and managers involved in the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River catchment, based on this research.

Other outputs from the project include an award-winning short film, produced with senior Gooniyandi Traditional Owner and artist Mervyn Street, called Veins of the Country. A detailed Nyikina seasonal calendar and hydro-ecological framework were also produced in collaboration with Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation and Nyikina Traditional Owners, principally Annie Milgin, Linda Nardea and Hilda Gray. The calendar was also celebrated via a community mural in Jarlmadangah, with joint funding from the Northern Australia Hub and Kimberley Community Grants.

Nyikina seasonal calendar

A Nyikina seasonal calendar. Copyright Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation.


water tank mural

Community mural being painted in Jarlmadangah to celebrate the Nyikina seasonal calendar. Photo: Sarah Laborde.

A story map, Living waters of the Martuwarra, was produced to communicate the research on the living waters model of the Martuwarra in an accessible and appealing way, including conceptual models developed to improve water governance by drawing on different ways of knowing and relating to water.

Find all these outputs and more, including the final report, on the project webpage.

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