Indigenous water needs for the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River

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 quality of life are key to meeting the water needs of Traditional Owners.

Language map of the Martuwarra

Map of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River catchment showing Native Title boundaries and corresponding language groups.

This project 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.

Two models together

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.


  1. That the limitations of current Indigenous recognition policies be acknowledged, and that the Western Australian government commit to a process of reform. The goal of recognising Indigenous interests in water is currently oriented towards protecting a narrow set of cultural values and, less so, improving water justice and socio-economic outcomes from possible water-resource development. The scope of government responses to the water issues in the Martuwarra/Fitzroy catchment needs to encompass water governance and jurisdiction, as well as economic development options.
  2. A new governance model needs to replace the existing one that relies on limited consultation with Traditional Owners, who are perceived as stakeholders by virtue of their ‘cultural values’. Governments should strengthen environmental governance institutions in the Kimberley to accommodate Traditional Owners’ governance principles, intellectual traditions, and customary management institutions, and develop models for sharing authority, managing Country, and setting and implementing collective goals.
  3. Traditional Owners are custodians of water places and bodies, with management responsibilities that need to be continually fulfilled through culturally competent water planning, management, and monitoring.
  4. Efforts should be made to improve government regulation of land and water use and public trust in processes of regulation and compliance.
  5. Traditional Owners require stronger connections between water planning and management, broader socio-economic development plans, and wellbeing frameworks. This requires better integration across government departments. For example, the links between good water management and Traditional Owners’ psycho-social and physical health should be acknowledged and addressed in collaboration with health agencies and departments.

Veins of the Country

With senior Gooniyandi Traditional Owner and artist Mervyn Street, the project produced a short film called ‘Veins of the Country’. The film depicts his understanding of the river and water flows, and their way of connecting the language groups of the catchment. Hub researchers, along with Mervyn Street, presented the project and the film to the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment in Canberra in February 2019. They were also invited in February 2019 to show the film at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, the University of Sydney, and at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (Canberra). The film was shown as part of the ‘Desert, River, Sea’ exhibition and triggered strategic conversations about the interface of water and art at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (2019). It received the ‘Environmental message’ prize at the Mud and Saltwater Film Festival in Broome (2019), was selected and screened by the Environmental Film Festival Australia (2021), and was shown at the Queensland Museum at an exhibition on art and science (2021). The film is owned and shared by Mervyn Street.

Seasonal calendar and community mural

A detailed Nyikina seasonal calendar and hydro-ecological framework were produced in collaboration with Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation and Nyikina Traditional Owners, principally Annie Milgin, Linda Nardea and Hilda Gray. More detail on our collaborative process and methodology are included in the scientific paper ‘Sustainability crises are crises of relationship: Learning from Nyikina ecology and ethics’ in the scientific journal People and Nature.

Nyikina seasonal calendar

A Nyikina seasonal calendar. Copyright Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation.


The calendar was also celebrated via a community mural in Jarlmadangah, with joint funding from the Northern Australia Hub and Kimberley Community Grants.

Mural being painted

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

Story map

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.

Living waters StoryMap front cover

The Martuwarra story map communicates the living waters model.

August 2021

The Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub addressed key research questions to come up with practical, on-ground solutions to some of the north’s most complex environmental challenges. A transdisciplinary research approach has been at the heart of the hub. Integrating key research users – policy-makers and land managers including Traditional Owners and ranger groups – into the co-design of research projects has led to rapid uptake of research outcomes into land management practices and decision-making. The hub has produced this wrap-up video outlining these impacts from the perspectives of research users.

June 2021

In the face of growing interest in the waters of the Warlibiddi and Martuwarra (Margaret and Fitzroy Rivers) in north-west Western Australia, NESP research has partnered with Traditional Owners to increase our understanding of the rivers’ important cultural and environmental requirements. In this short film, senior Gooniyandi artist Mervyn Street shares his art and storytelling about the waters of the Warlibiddi and Martuwarra, and the waters’ vital significance to the Country and people’s lives.

Mervyn shares his wisdom to help viewers understand the rhythms of water and life and what they mean in his philosophical tradition. He also hopes it will help viewers understand the importance of the Warlibiddi and Martuwarra waters to not only sustain life, but also enable social connections and sustain culture for future generations.

Living waters of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River (story map)

The Martuwarra is a large river system in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia (photo: M. Jones).

Martuwarra or Mardoowarra is the name that Nyikina people give the River. It has other names in the many Aboriginal languages of the region. It is known as the Fitzroy River in English. Other major rivers such as the Mary, the Margaret and the Hann rivers (their English names) all flow into the Martuwarra.

The research was led by Professor Sue Jackson from Griffith University. Professor Jackson was assisted by researchers from The University of Western Australia and the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University.

We acknowledge the unceded Aboriginal lands on which this project was conducted. This research was conducted in collaboration with Traditional Owners of the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River catchment, which includes Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Jaru, Kija, Kurungal, Nyikina, Mangala, Warrwa, Wilinggin, Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara and Yungngora Peoples. We acknowledge their elders.

Each Traditional Owner group holds the cultural authority to speak for water within their Country. We acknowledge the ancestors who have passed down their knowledge, and the Traditional Owners today who have chosen to contribute it towards this project, in a spirit of generosity and willingness to share knowledge.

We also acknowledge the support of the Chief Executive Officers and Directors of the catchment’s Prescribed Bodies Corporate: Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation, Gooniyandi Aboriginal Corporation, TiyaTiya Aboriginal Corporation, Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation, Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation, Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation and Yungngora Aboriginal Corporation. We are also grateful to the Kimberley Land Council for logistical assistance and the support from Karen Dayman.

This project was completed in June 2021.

Sue Jackson, Griffith University
[email protected]

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  • Josephine Forrest and Likil. Photo: Sarah Laborde © Josephine Forrest.
  • Community mural being painted in Jarlmadangah to celebrate the Nyikina seasonal calendar. Photo: Sarah Laborde.
  • A Nyikina seasonal calendar. Copyright Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation.
  • Yeerra Pool on Nyikina-Mangala land (Fitzroy River), photo Michael Douglas.
  • Nyikina-Mangala Rangers collect fish in the pools and shallow run habitats of the lower Fitzroy River, photo Leah Beesley.
  • Traditional Resources. Photo: Glenn Campbell
  • Fitzroy River. Photo: Michael Douglas
  • Bush tucker. Photo: Michael Lawrence-Taylor
  • Fitzroy River. Photo: Michael Douglas
  • Fitzroy River. Photo: Michael Douglas