Skip to main content
Go to search page

Water for First Nations

Water is central to the cultural, social and spiritual identity of Australia's First Nations people, as well as to their livelihoods.

'Cultural flows' are water entitlements owned and managed by First Nations to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic health and well-being of Traditional Owners and Country. Cultural flows are distinct from water for the environment, however they can complement each other.

Cultural flows are underpinned by the principle of First Nations’ control over waters they have ancestral connections with, and the exercise of self-determination in relation to those waters. The National Cultural Flows Research Project further developed this understanding and established a national framework for implementing them.

Cultural flows are yet to be consistently included in contemporary water management in Australia. However, governments are working to make this happen and cultural flows research and trials continue.

Key facts

  • First Nations people have a spiritual obligation to care for water and waterways, above and below ground, as part of their commitment to Caring for Country. First Nations are custodians – carers and protectors – of Country.
  • First Nations continue to strengthen their involvement in contemporary water planning and management.
  • The Australian Government is providing $40 million (shared equally between the northern and southern Basin) to help First Nations communities invest in water for cultural and economic activities.
  • The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is exploring ways of integrating cultural flows into Basin water management and planning.
  • Dedicated cultural flows will help achieve meaningful cultural and economic outcomes for First Nations.
  • There are more than 40 First Nations in the Basin, each with a unique and rich cultural and spiritual connection to Country.

Why First Nations need cultural flows

The intrinsic need for cultural flows is grounded in the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Australia endorsed in 2009.

Cultural flows enable First Nations to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with Country and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations. Cultural flows help preserve and protect cherished parts of Country such as burial mounds, scarred trees and campsites, which are vital to maintaining connection to Country. Cultural flows are important to First Nations identity, wellbeing, knowledge, storytelling and teaching. The timing, duration and location of culturally important activities such as fishing, hunting, ceremonies and the harvesting of medicinal plants and herbs can be maintained and enhanced by cultural flows.

Water from cultural flows for First Nations people will support:

  • the right to use and manage water
  • spiritual and cultural heritage and values
  • wellbeing
  • capacity building (better enabling First Nations people to participate in contemporary water planning and management and develop the structures and capabilities for owning and managing water entitlements).

Establishing cultural flows in the Murray–Darling Basin

The MDBA is collaborating with First Nations and Basin governments to explore ways to integrate cultural flows into contemporary water management in the Basin.

Securing cultural flows is vital for First Nations. To help realise this the Australian Government, through the National Indigenous Australians Agency, is providing $40 million to help First Nation communities invest in water for cultural and economic activities.

Research project to establish cultural flows

The National Cultural Flows Research Project, a project driven by and for First Nations people, released a national framework for cultural flows in 2018. The planning and research committee for the project included the peak Traditional Owner organisations in the Basin – The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

Under the framework, the values of cultural water use can be described and measured for the first time. The framework shows it is possible to measure and deliver cultural flow outcomes.

Developing a new Basin-wide approach to cultural flows will take time, but there is now a clear method for determining, delivering and assessing cultural flows.

The project also recommended future work to increase capacity in First Nations communities to advocate for and manage cultural flow allocations to protect First Nations values and interests in water.

Implementing the findings of the research project

In May 2018 the Australian Government committed a total of $1.375 million each to MLDRIN and Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN) to translate the findings of the National Cultural Flows Research project into plans for the use of cultural flows on Country.

The funding enabled MLDRIN and NBAN to develop comprehensive strategies for working with their member nations on implementing the cultural flows methodology, developed as part of the research project.

The project works directly with Traditional Owners and First Nations on Country to develop cultural flows management plans and nation plans. The process for developing the plans is often supported by the Aboriginal Waterways Assessments methodology.

Whilst a number of plans have already been produced, there are still a number to go and MLDRIN continues to support those member nations. Nations are at various stages in the planning process, and work continues to produce plans.

'Cultural flows' and 'water for the environment' are different

Water for the environment is water that is held and released from storages at specific times for specific environmental outcomes. These might include, for example, sustaining diverse, resilient and vibrant waterways and ecological systems in identified wetlands or river reaches. The use of water for the environment also keeps waterways healthy for human use and enjoyment as well as agricultural production.

While cultural flows also support healthy, functioning water ways, this is not necessarily their primary purpose. Cultural flows can have a range of other priority objectives and specific purposes to support First Nations people improve quality of life, continue ancestral practices and strengthen connection to Country.

Updated: 07 Nov 2022