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Water for First Nations people

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 their spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions.

While there have been research and pilot projects, cultural flows have not yet been granted for the Murray–Darling Basin river system. They are not common in Australia more widely either. While the Australian and state governments are committed to implementing cultural flows, it will be some time before this happens.

You should know

  • First Nations people have a spiritual obligation to care for surface water and groundwater resources, as part of their commitment to caring for Country.
  • First Nations are currently involved in water planning and management.
  • The Australian Government has committed $40 million to establish and support First Nations investment in cultural and economic water entitlements and associated activities within the Basin.
  • The Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) supports the establishment of dedicated cultural flows.
  • Dedicated cultural flows will help achieve meaningful cultural outcomes for First Nations.
  • There are more than 40 First Nations in the Basin.

Why First Nations need cultural flows

First Nations people in the Murray–Darling Basin have a strong spiritual connection to water, and a moral obligation to care for it, as they have done for many thousands of years.

The outcomes from cultural flows reflect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Australia endorsed in 2009.

Cultural flows benefit practical activities like fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants and herbs. They also preserve and protect important assets including burial mounds, scarred trees, and campsites which help maintain connections to Country. Identity, wellbeing, capacity building and intergenerational teaching are also key components of 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 water planning and management activities and improving knowledge of the requirements for owning and managing water entitlements).

Establishing cultural flows in the Murray–Darling Basin

The MDBA supports establishing cultural flows.

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

The Australian Government has committed $40 million to establish a water investment program that supports First Nations communities to plan for and implement cultural and economic entitlements.

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.

Under the framework, the values of cultural water use can be described and measured for the first time. The framework shows it's 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.

The planning and research committee for the project included The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations (NBAN), the two peak Traditional Owner organisations in the Basin that focus on natural resource management, and the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance.

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

Water for the environment (or 'environmental water') keeps rivers healthy and sustains plants, animals and fish.

While cultural flows can also be used to improve the health of the rivers, that is not their only purpose. Cultural flows have a range of other objectives that support First Nations people to improve quality of life and continue traditional practices.

Updated: 06 Oct 2021