Cultural and spiritual values

Water resources have important cultural and spiritual values, particularly for indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand.

Cultural significance of water in Australia

Water is core to life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Protecting and managing water is a custodial and intergenerational responsibility.
If the cultural and spiritual values of water are sustained by providing water that is sufficient in both quantity and quality, then many other components of Indigenous life will be healthy.

Cultural and spiritual values may relate to a range of uses and issues, including spiritual relationships, language, song lines, stories, sacred places, customary use, the plants and animals associated with water, drinking water, and recreational or commercial activities.

Native title legislation, and Commonwealth and state cultural heritage and water legislation and agreements (including the National Water Initiative), provide for the recognition and management of Indigenous interests in water.

Cultural significance of water in New Zealand

Water has enormous cultural importance for Māori.

Water acts as a link between the spiritual and physical worlds, and many water bodies are associated with wahi tapu (sacred sites). All elements of the natural environment (including people) are believed to possess a mauri (life force), which Māori endeavour to protect.

The wellbeing of an iwi (tribe) is linked to the condition of the water in its rohe (territory). Water also provides important mahinga kai (food, tools and other resources collected from fresh and marine waters). Supply and exchange of mahinga kai forms part of the social fabric of Māori tribal life.

New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991 requires that water be managed in a way that:

  • recognises and provides for ‘the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, waahi tapi, and other taonga (treasures)’ [Section 6(e)] and 'the protection of protected customary rights' [Section 6(g)] 
  • gives regard to ‘kaitiakitanga(guardianship)’ [Section 7(a)]
  • takes into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi [Section 8], including the principles of partnership and active protection.

Preserving cultural and spiritual values in water quality planning

Many indigenous people believe that the land, sky, water and its people are inseparable; they are all connected.

To achieve the best outcomes for the preservation and enhancement of cultural and spiritual values, water quality planning must be integrated with water allocation (quantity) planning and management processes because they are intrinsically linked.

We have developed principles and processes to guide water quality planning in a way that considers cultural and spiritual values and protects the intellectual property of the indigenous knowledge holder.

Appropriate up-front and ongoing engagement of relevant indigenous people is a key element of the process, particularly with regard to ensuring the proper identification, free prior informed consent, prioritisation and consideration of cultural and spiritual values throughout the water quality planning process (see Box 1).

A range of indigenous engagement protocols and references exist in Australia and New Zealand, and should be used as circumstances require.

Box 1: Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about the cultural and spiritual values of water

Intellectual property

Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity states:

‘Each contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, subject to national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge innovations and practices.’

Free, prior and informed consent

Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) has been recognised by a number of intergovernmental organisations, international bodies, conventions and international human rights law in varying degrees. In Australia, as a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, jurisdictions have a duty to consult with Indigenous peoples and the goal of consultations should be to obtain their FPIC, where:

  • ‘free’ implies no coercion, intimidation or manipulation
  • ‘prior’ implies that consent is obtained in advance of the activity associated with the decision being made, and includes the time necessary to allow Indigenous people to undertake their own decision-making processes
  • ‘informed’ implies that Indigenous peoples have been provided all information relating to the activity and that that information is objective, accurate and presented in a manner and form understandable to Indigenous people
  • ‘consent’ implies that Indigenous people have agreed to the activity that is the subject of the relevant decision, which may also be subject to conditions.

In Australia, FPIC does not extend the right to be consulted or consent to be received to also include a veto power for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Incorporating cultural and spiritual values into water quality planning

Assessing and accounting for cultural and spiritual values in water quality management processes forms part of the determination and evaluation of community values and supports consultation with indigenous engagement protocols.

Figure 1 illustrates a proposed pathway for incorporating indigenous cultural and spiritual values into water quality planning. The figure has a series of explanatory notes that relate to the pathway steps.

Figure 1: Proposed pathways for incorporating cultural and spiritual values into water quality planning
Figure 1: Proposed pathways for incorporating cultural and spiritual values into water quality planning

Explanatory notes for Figure 1
  1. Effective engagement with appropriate indigenous peoples is important. Local indigenous peoples’ requirements will need to be addressed. Consider these initial ideas to support effective engagement with indigenous peoples:
    • Identify appropriate indigenous people to engage with. This will include identifying any native title holders or claimants, land councils, the applicable indigenous nation(s), elders, communities, families and individuals who can ‘speak for Country’ or the land.
    • Tailor effective engagement practices, including opportunities for capacity building, to meet the needs of the local indigenous peoples.
    • Provide cultural awareness training to staff of local governments or other stakeholders involved in water quality management assessment processes that include engaging with local indigenous peoples.
    • Source cultural awareness training from local indigenous owned and run enterprises, where available, in the relevant area.
    • Engage with appropriate indigenous peoples early in the water quality planning procedure. Approaching indigenous peoples, building trust, engaging effectively and providing feedback all take time. This process cannot be left until the end of a water quality planning process.
    • While water quality will be the focus of discussion, include discussion about water quantity in consultation and engagement with indigenous peoples if raised, as it does inform the water planning process.
    • Indigenous groups will operate on different time frames from water quality planning time frames. Respect and accommodate those differences.
    • In some cases, or for certain parts of the engagement process, reimbursement of costs and payment of consultation fees may be required by indigenous peoples. Negotiate financial issues early in the engagement process and be adequately financed to cover this possibility.
    • Seek further information, including:
  2. Discussing cultural and spiritual values with indigenous peoples:
    • A better understanding of indigenous cultural and spiritual values as they relate to water is essential to inform these discussions. Indigenous principles for water quality does not represent the official views of all indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand but you can use these principles as guidance to help define and inform the discussions with local indigenous peoples.
    • Early on in discussions, consider traditional and current indigenous knowledge about water and how its quality relates to indigenous cultural and spiritual values, as well as any gender-specific issues (men’s business and women’s business). These discussions would help to build intercultural understanding between water quality managers and traditional owners.
    • Effective communication with indigenous peoples must be based on an understanding of their frame of reference (a holistic approach, with people and all aspects of the environment interconnected). This differs from the usual approach of splitting natural resources management into smaller components, such as water quantity and water quality. To achieve effective communication, this difference must be addressed and therefore, water quality planning must be linked with:
      • the broader management of the landscape, including water allocation planning, natural resources management, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture and land use, and development controls
      • day-to-day management of land and marine activities by indigenous peoples, other community members, agricultural and other industries, and government land managers
      • cultural, economic, social and spiritual considerations that are fundamental to supporting the maintenance and development of indigenous culture.
  • Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of their cultural and spiritual values must be respected as being sensitive information that may be confidential and involve intellectual property rights:
    • Not all knowledge held by indigenous people is sensitive, but asking them to reveal ‘knowledge of their cultural and spiritual values’ (to a person outside of their community) will always need to be respected as being sensitive information, due to the very personal nature of the information you are asking them to share and the degree of trust that they will need to feel before providing such information. In some cases information may not be either confidential or involve intellectual property rights, but in all cases it deserves to be treated as ‘sensitive information’ that requires further inquiry before any potential release of the information.
    • Where information is confidential or involves potential intellectual property rights, water quality planning must consider this and take appropriate measures to maintain confidentiality, unless given express permission by the appropriate indigenous elders to do otherwise.
    • It may not be necessary for a water quality planner to be given information about:
      1. the exact location of a sensitive site where water quality needs to be protected. Specifying a longer particular reach of a creek or river, or a particular stretch of coast, may be sufficient, while protecting the exact location from any adverse actions that may arise from its location being publicised (e.g. vandalism); and/or
      2. the exact nature of cultural and spiritual values that apply at the location. You could use the ‘aims’ and ‘indicators’ in Table 1 to indicate what type of water quality protection is needed, to allow confidential cultural and spiritual information to be protected from being released.
    • Working with indigenous peoples and acting on their advice, identify and prioritise the water quality components that support the protection of indigenous cultural and/or spiritual values associated with the water body in question.
  1. Test if existing water quality guideline values can support the protection of the water quality components of cultural and spiritual values:
    • Use general information about water quality parameters and water quality objectives to support traditional knowledge. A number of the existing guideline values in the Water Quality Guidelines could be relatable and relevant to indigenous cultural and spiritual values (see Tab le 1). Discuss these in detail.
    • The aquatic ecosystems component of the Water Quality Guidelines is particularly important, as it represents the usual approach to protecting the health of the land. ‘Healthy Country’ is fundamental to indigenous culture and spirituality, so this set of water quality guideline values needs to be explored in depth. For example:
      • Seeking agreement on the ‘Ecosystem condition and levels of protection’ (in the Water Quality Guidelines) that indigenous peoples would like for different locations, such as a ‘high conservation/ecological value’ target for extremely significant cultural or spiritual sites, as opposed to accepting a ‘Slightly to moderately disturbed’ target for an area of lesser cultural or spiritual importance.
      • Aiming for protection of current aquatic ecosystem condition if locations still have ‘high conservation/ecological value’.
      • Recognising that setting a target condition that is based on reasonable and practicable improvement in aquatic ecosystem condition may be appropriate, as it is more likely to be accepted than setting targets that are seen as unrealistic.
      • Discussing the practicalities of aiming for the highest target condition if a site is currently in a ‘moderately disturbed’ or ‘highly disturbed’ state. Is this reasonable and practicable?
      • For the worst sites, you may need to ask if indigenous cultural and spiritual values have been irretrievably lost.
    • If a number of appropriate guideline values are identified, the most stringent set can be used to set the water quality objectives to protect elements of cultural and spiritual values.
  2. Use the Water Quality Guidelines to develop water quality objectives:
    • Refer to the appropriate National Water Quality Management Strategy guidelines to develop water quality objectives for the identified cultural and spiritual values. This should include alignment of water quality guideline values from
    • It is possible that further discussions could determine alternative water quality guideline values for cultural and spiritual values by
      • adopting water quality guideline values for the closest-fit National Water Quality Management Strategy community value
      • negotiating one-off water quality objectives to reflect the particular cultural or spiritual value (a water quality scientist may be able to suggest appropriate water quality parameters if they can understand the nature of the indigenous value)
      • identifying possible research that may provide new water quality objectives in the future.

If this is not possible, both parties may have to accept that some indigenous cultural or spiritual values cannot be immediately captured by water quality guideline values or objectives, but may be captured through research, consultation and engagement over time.

  1. Develop management response options:
    • The National Water Quality Management Strategy Implementation Guidelines describe the proposed pathway in developing and implementing plans to manage fresh and coastal waters and groundwater. They cover the use of the strategy’s various guidelines, preparation of water quality management plans, and development of levels of service provided by water authorities. They also outline a step-by-step approach for developing an effective community communication program.
  2. Discuss response options with indigenous peoples and the wider community:
    • Communicate the options. Allow for feedback on cultural, economic, environmental and social implications of the various options.
    • Make a decision based on indigenous peoples’ advice on the best options for achieving the water quality objective. Determine if these options are appropriate, feasible and acceptable
      • if yes, incorporate the indigenous cultural and/or spiritual value and the management response into the water quality management plan
      • if no, reassess the water quality components of the cultural and spiritual values and/or the water quality objectives and the management response options and continue. This may mean revisiting pathway steps 2, 4(b) and 5 in Figure 1.
  3. Incorporate indigenous cultural and spiritual values and management responses into the water quality management plan:
    • Ensure that the water quality management plan incorporates the agreed indigenous cultural and spiritual values and management responses and any future actions that will be undertaken as part of the plan, such as further research. If further research is required, consider using an indigenous organisation to undertake the research.
    • You might consider incorporating acknowledgement of those cultural and spiritual values that are not part of the water quality management plan and the agreed reason for not including some. This would demonstrate that consideration and consultation was undertaken as part of the process.
  4. Implement the water quality management plan:
    • Include an ongoing process to ensure that the management response is working. That is, cultural and spiritual values are not diminishing because of the impacts of poor water quality.
    • Indigenous peoples must be offered the opportunity to be involved in the implementation, monitoring, review and adaptation of actions to manage water quality. Monitoring activities particularly lend themselves to the involvement of indigenous peoples because the activity capitalises on their knowledge of the land.
    • If possible, indigenous people should be able to become involved in on-ground implementation measures, either on their own land or native title claim area, or on-country as part of community participation.
    • Employment opportunities for indigenous peoples should be factored into planning and implementation actions because economic security is a vital part of protecting indigenous cultural and spiritual values.

How the Water Quality Guidelines support the protection of cultural and spiritual values

We prepared this guidance to assist in identifying possible guideline values contained within the Water Quality Guidelines and other guidelines that could meet part or all of a particular cultural and spiritual value. This does not replace the need to consult with indigenous peoples.

Table 1: Cultural and spiritual values in the Water Quality Guidelines and other guidance
Aim Indicator Water Quality Guidelines and other guidance
‘Water-Country’ and ‘Sea-Country’ is healthy Plants and animals that live in the water are healthy Biological assessment 
Water quality is unchanged or close to natural conditions Physical and chemical (PC) stressors
Other non-water quality related stressors
Sands, silts and clays on creek and river beds and in lakes, estuaries and on the ocean floor are not polluted Sediment quality
'Water-Country’ and ‘Sea-Country’ looks healthy Recreational water quality
Water quality is safe for drinking and the water is safe for sourcing food Eating fish and other water animals is safe Primary industries
Eating water-living food plants is safe Biological assessment 
Physical and chemical (PC) stressors
Sediment quality
Water is safe for drinking Drinking untreated water is not recommended unless the water meets Australian or New Zealand drinking water guidelines:
Water quality is safe for recreational and ceremonial purposes Water quality is safe for swimming or for ceremonies where people go under water Recreational water quality — primary contact 
Water quality is safe to paddle in or go boating on Recreational water quality — secondary contact 
Water quality supports economic wellbeing of indigenous peoples Healthy water supports tourism Guideline values
Recreational water quality
Primary industries
Healthy water supports farming Primary industries
Water allocation plans
Healthy water supports aquaculture Primary industries
Water allocation plans
Healthy water supports other economic uses Water Quality Guidelines or other guidelines, depending on the type of economic activity
Water allocation plans