How the water runs

During the drought that dominated Australian life at the start of the 21st Century, Dr Virginia Marshall noticed something was missing.

"In all the media and national dialogue about the drought, no-one was talking about how this issue was affecting Aboriginal people,” she remembers. She decided to change that.

Dr Marshall is now the ANU Inaugural Indigenous Postdoctoral Fellow, a role which sits between the Fenner School of Environment and Society and the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet).

Her research draws upon the strengths in science and regulation of both schools, as she investigates how Aboriginal water rights can be recognised not merely as a stakeholder interest in the National Water Initiative, but as a pillar within it.

"We need to introduce having a value for Aboriginal water rights, in the law, in the science of water, economic value and a cultural value too,” she explains.

"At Fenner we talk about ‘water’, but to the Aboriginal people, ‘water’ has far more depth of meaning, going back to Aboriginal language.

"There’s a whole different range of understandings coming from where the Aboriginal people live. There’s where the water flows from, the headwaters, or the water that comes up through the desert, the jila, all incorporated into Aboriginal language.

"In Australia we have all these artificial borders which designate states and towns, but underneath that we’ve got tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal understanding of the land. It’s far greater and far older than any European system we have now.

"In our system of national water policy and state laws and local government laws, we need to come back and look at Indigenous water knowledge to understand how the water runs, and why we have problems with western water management.

"We need to have the first peoples’ extensive knowledge and relationship with the land and water in the National Water Initiative, which is the blueprint of Australia’s water resources.”