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Ngarrindjeri country is located in the southeast region of South Australia, featuring a large area of the Murray River Basin, including the lower lakes (Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert), the Murray Mouth and the Coorong. Ngarrindjeri creation stories have roots in the river systems in and around the Murray with it being a major element in Ngarrindjeri way of life, wellbeing, culture and economy for thousands of years. Ngarrindjeri knowledge of the features and natural operation of the Murray, prior to interference, have been passed on through generations. Along with the Ngarrindjeri, the health of this river system has been a significant focus for all South Australians following the recent drought. The Ngarrindjeri Nation Sea Country Plan was produced by Ngarrindjeri people in to help government agencies understand and acknowledge Ngarrindjeri knowledge, rights and responsibilities associated with the Murray system and Ngarrindjeri Country.

Being a non-indigenous Australian, my personal understanding of culture is that fundamentally, it is about looking after your “country”, being principally the environment, including all plants and animals, in a sustainable way, and thus the health and success of the people will follow. In engineering and related fields, the term ‘sustainability’ has become a recent focus in everything we do, as our natural environment, particularly our water systems, shows signs of overuse, however Indigenous Australians have been living sustainably for thousands of years. I think that if more non-indigenous Australians understood this basis of culture, we could benefit from more open collaboration towards a common goal and learn from that immense knowledge to equip ourselves for the future.

Cultural Flows

In water planning, the term cultural flows refers to the acknowledgement that the life and wellbeing of Aboriginal people is linked to the life and wellbeing of the waterways that flow through Country. For example, each of the tribes that make up the Ngarrindjeri Nation has their own Ngaitji (meaning totem in Ngarrindjeri language). One of these is the pelican, which is reliant on healthy rivers and oceans for food. The health of the pelican dictates the health of the people. This means that preserving the river and the life of the pelican is more than an environmental issue – it is essential to the life and spirit of the Aboriginal people.

Understanding and defining the ‘value’ of water can differ greatly depending on perspective. The meaning and importance of cultural flows in the water industry is still not well understood and can be confused with environmental flows.  

The Murray Darling Basin Plan has started on the journey to better define and consider these issues, with each state now going through the process of developing a framework and processes to capture these needs and values. The Basin Plan includes a definition from MLDRIN, a confederation of indigenous nations:

“Cultural flows are water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous Nations and are of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations. This is our inherent right.[] “

A Unique Partnership

In , the South Australian Government and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA) formed the Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreement (KNYA)[].


Native Title Claim Area, Ngarrindjeri Nation

Lucy Keatinge and Karen Cox on the Nebine creek in Murra Murra in South West Queensland.

Dani Barrington and Karen Cox visit the oldest archiological dig in Australia. Ngaut Ngaut, South Australia

Ngarrindgjeri elder Tom Trevorrow, South Australia

KNY means ‘listening to Ngarrindjeri people speaking’ and this unique partnership provides a formal platform to incorporate Ngarrindjeri views into government decisions particularly in the areas of natural resource and cultural heritage management.

This agreement is an extemely positive and important step towards recognition of Indigenous values and culture by the South Australian state government and demonstrates the willingness for two-way knowledge sharing and co-management.

EWB joins the dialogue

In , EWB’s SA Chapter held an event with the Young Water Professionals Network of the Australian Water Association, to discuss cultural flows and water management. Speakers included representatives from the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and Grant Rigney from the Ngarrindjeri Nation, who spoke about what water means to Aboriginal people and the difficulties faced with trying to interpret and quantify these needs in the context of government.

More recently Lizzie Brown (CEO of EWB) and I attended a KNYA Workshop on the Murray River, near Blanchetown, SA. There was a strong focus on the separation of environmental and cultural flows and how to measure cultural flows. Engineering often measures environmental health in terms of the volume of water that passes through a specific point. At the workshop, there was a discussion around compiling new indicators, such as the health of a tree species or animal, that would allow Ngarrindjeri people to monitor their Country and protect sacred sites and business.

EWB can provide a platform for relationships to develop between communities, government and the engineering sector, particularly in the area of knowledge sharing and understanding. Outcomes of these relationships might lead to engineering projects that assist in augmenting flows from overallocated systems and building an understanding of cultural flows.

Meeting with different organisations involved has opened up opportunities for future patnerships for the SA Chapter of EWB. Over the coming months we will explore opportunities for EWB to assist the Ngarrindjeri Nation in realising their goals for water management.

Karen Cox is a civil engineer who works in the water sector. She is an EWB Member and an active volunteer in the SA Chapter. In , she participated in EWB’s Dialogues of Development journey through the Murray Darling Basin, meeting with Traditional Owners on Country and discussing the connection between water, land and culture. Here she explores the cultural importance of water to Aboriginal Nations and collaborations that incorporate views of the Ngarrindjeri Nation into water planning.

[] (MLDRIN, , http://www.mdba.gov.au/what-we-do/working-with-others/aboriginal-communities/cultural-flows)

[] http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/files/ac-a-ac-febdb/cllmm-gen-kungunngarrindjeriyunnanagreement.pdf