Indigenous principles for water quality

Adapted from text written by Brad Moggridge, Kamilaroi Nation, North-West NSW, Australia; and Roku Mihinui, Te Arawa Iwi, Rotorua, Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Water is considered by Indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand to be a sacred gift that is critical to their identity and existence, as well as being economically important.

The protection of water is bound by traditional lore and customs, which provide a system of sustainable management ensuring healthy people while exercising custodial responsibilities to manage parts of customary estates.

whakataukii (Māori proverb) about the water cycle:

Rain (water) is the tears of our Sky Father expressing his grief because of his separation from our Earth Mother. The tears maintain the connection and provide sustenance to nourish Earth Mother and their children.

Australian Aboriginal proverb about water quality (Figure 1):

If the water is healthy, Country is healthy. If Country is healthy then the People and Culture will be healthy.

Figure 1: Australian Aboriginal people’s view of the relationship between water, environment, culture and people. Adapted from Moggridge B 2010, Aboriginal Water Knowledge & Connections, in: Water and its Interdependencies in the Australian Economy, 22 to 23 June 2010, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Sydney.
Figure 1: Australian Aboriginal people’s view of the relationship between water, environment, culture and people


The principles outlined here are the result of a Kanohi ki te Kanohi (face-to-face interaction) between Australian Aboriginal and Māori members of the Joint Steering Committee for the revision of the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality, and Australian and New Zealand government officials, held in Wellington, Aotearoa (New Zealand) on 11 December 2009.

These principles should not be considered to represent the official views of all Indigenous communities in Australia and New Zealand. Use them as guidance to help define and inform work on the protection of cultural and spiritual values in water quality planning and management.

Indigenous peoples from Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) hold water in high esteem as it is the basis of all life. Cultural and spiritual values will vary from place to place and country to country. These principles emphasise the need for appropriate consultation with Indigenous people at the local, regional and national levels to ensure traditional cultural knowledge of the landscape is considered when deriving water quality objectives.

Values and principles

These principles are multifaceted, and are interrelated in both meaning and application.

The living Earth

Understand and respect that Indigenous people acknowledge the environment as a living entity.

Māori stories, songs and history refer to Sky Father and Earth Mother, and the various children whose continued healthy existence is reliant on the health and wellbeing of their blood supply or waterways.

‘Living water’ is a term used by desert Aboriginal peoples to describe permanent water in a dry land with distinct physical properties and cultural significance.


If a water system is polluted, Indigenous people would impose a restriction on use and access until the system returns to full health. If a permanent waterhole dries up due to over-extraction or becomes polluted, the cultural significance can be lost forever.

Traditional lore and customs

Understand and respect that Indigenous people are bound by their traditional lore and customs. The stories, songs and history relate to where the people have come from (creators, cultural heroes and ancestors) and where they are going. This sets a deep spiritual relationship with the land, sky and waters.

Lore and law may vary between tribes and nations, and how these lores are implemented depends on the underlying principles for implementation. Lore and law itself never change but the underlying principles for implementation change, to evolve with the present day’s pressures.

Generations of Indigenous people are taught by their elders to respect the laws of the land. They believe that if the lores are broken, traditional and modern justice may be imposed.

In Australia, traditional Indigenous lore is based on the Dreaming, which links the past, present and future, and the principles are based on lore and law.

Indigenous language

Understand and respect that water is well represented in the multitude of Indigenous languages within Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand), which name water sites with their own distinct name, title, song, story, Dreaming and meaning. This is critical for water managers to understand.

A water site is not just a watering hole for cattle but a distinct site in the local Indigenous people’s understanding of the environment, language and community.


If a water site dries up because of over-extraction or is destroyed by pollution, the traditional story or site’s meaning in language is lost forever.

Traditional knowledge

Understand and respect the deep relationship Indigenous people have with their land, sky and waters through traditional knowledge, including ethnobiological and botanical knowledge. They are all connected. This understanding comes from up to 5000 generations of habitation of traditional lands, bound by lores and customs derived for the sustainable survival of its people.


Indigenous people understand their environment because of the deep-seated relationship; and currently the indicators suggest that the Earth is sick. Local Indigenous people need to be consulted if any activity will affect the natural cycles.

Gender responsibilities

Understand and respect that Indigenous peoples of Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) will have their own protocols about who does what, as in men’s and women’s ceremonial and nation business. Their responsibilities differ. Their stories, songs and ceremonies differ. It may be traditionally unacceptable for the opposite sex to know or hear about such cultural activities.


Indigenous people need to be culturally consulted if any activity is proposed that may intervene with the natural balance, as it may include gender-specific issues (men’s business and women’s business).

Custodial responsibilities and wellbeing

Understand that Indigenous peoples of Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) have complex systems for ensuring their ancestors (creators) are kept happy. Part of this responsibility is being custodians of one’s land, sky and waters. This is through a strong kinship system that mandates a people’s responsibility to care for the land.


Indigenous people are healthy if their water and country is healthy and they have input into the way it is managed.

Intergenerational responsibilities

Understand that Indigenous people of Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) have a responsibility to their ancestors to care for and protect the land in a way bound by principles that ensure that future generations can be sustainable. This obligation to past and future generations is evident in today’s Indigenous peoples. The elders of Indigenous groups in Australia and Aotearoa are required to be advised of decisions that will affect a tribe or nation.


Today’s Indigenous generation have an inherent responsibility to care for the elders and to ensure the ancestors are happy. This occurs through caring and respecting the generations from the children up to elders and ancestors.

Cultural evolution

Understand that Indigenous cultures in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) are deep-seated and enshrined into their people’s way of life. Their cultures are also strong and adaptive. But times and circumstances have changed, and so too have the cultures of Indigenous peoples through evolving to survive. This survival is derived from and guided by the decisions or lores and laws made by ancestors. In today’s sense, Indigenous people wish to be culturally, economically, environmentally and socially sustainable.


In many Indigenous communities, traditional social structures are still in place but they have evolved to abide by the Australian and New Zealand governments’ systems of laws.


Understand that Indigenous people in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) believe that the land, sky, water and its people are inseparable. They are all connected. This principle is interrelated to lore, cultural obligation and traditional knowledge principles, demonstrating the long and deep understanding Indigenous people have of their respective environments.


Indigenous people understand through stories and songs from their ancestors that the water that falls on the mountains ends up in the sea, either by surface movement or under the ground. Any interruption or change in quality to this cycle can be disastrous.

Along the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, the local people understand that if a certain Acacia species is in full bloom, then the bream are running. They also know that when the yellow-tailed black cockatoo flies north, a southerly change is coming and it is going to rain.

Aotearoa Māori water quality case studies

These 3 case studies help to illustrate the linkages between Māori cultural and spiritual values and water quality.

Monitoring — case study 1

Use of traditional Māori methods to sample kōura (native freshwater crayfish) has provided a number of advantages over ‘traditional’ scientific methods in Lake Rotoiti, in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty.

Standard scientific techniques, such as baited traps and drift diving, are expensive and may not sample an accurate cross-section of the population. Methods such as drift diving have limited use in turbid or murky waterways.

A traditional method of harvesting kōura in Lake Rotoiti involves placing large bundles of bracken on the lake, using a concept similar to a long line. A population of kōura then colonises the bracken, which can be removed from the lake and studied. This method is effective and has several advantages in that it is inexpensive, unbiased to kōura size, and is not limited by the depth, size or quality of the waterway.

Application of traditional ecological knowledge in this way can be particularly useful for monitoring indicator species as a basic measure to assess stream health.


Kusabs, IA & Quinn, JM 2008, Use of a Traditional Māori Harvesting Method, the Tau Kōura, for Monitoring Kōura (Freshwater Crayfish, Paranephrops planifions) in Lake Rotoiti, North Island, New Zealand (PDF, 523KB), Taylor & Francis Group, Abingdon.

Physical and chemical pollution — case study 2

In the majority of cases, pollution does not occur in one fell swoop but over a longer time.

The historical connection between Indigenous communities and their environment can help document the cause and course of pollution and clarify the aspirations of the local community for a waterway.

The history of the people of Ngāti Awa is intertwined with the Tarawera River in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand. This has resulted in a strong relationship that both recognises the mauri (life force) of the river and relies on the river for food, drinking water, bathing and recreation.

The gradual decline of Tarawera River’s water quality, principally as a result of discharges from paper and pulp mills and effluent from the Kawerau district council, has deeply affected this relationship with the river ‘to the point of extreme despair’.

Undertaking a series of workshops with Ngāti Awa in 1998 helped to highlight the issues, the importance of Tarawera River and the impacts of its degradation on the local community.

Engagement with local Indigenous people can be a significant step towards forming an effective cultural health index for the river’s management.


Dodd M 1998, Tarawera River Case Study Report, New Zealand, unpublished.

Primary industry — case study 3

Te Waihora Lake Ellesmere is a large coastal lake, approximately 30 km south of Christchurch, New Zealand. The lake is intermittently open to the sea and is highly regarded for its conservation and related values, some of which are of international significance.

Lake Ellesmere Catchment is undergoing accelerated land use intensification, and the lake’s natural function as a nutrient sink within the catchment has led to issues with water quality.

Waihora Ellesmere Trust was established in 2003 as a community group to advocate for improved management of the lake. In April 2007, a joint study of the cultural health of the lake was undertaken by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

Cultural health information for Te Waihora is important, considering the significance of the lake in Ngāi Tahu history, identity and ongoing wellbeing.

Despite obvious problems with water quality, and modification, pressure and native vegetation issues, results showed that the lake still holds significant mahinga kai (traditional food and other natural resources) values.

NIWA and Ngāi Tahu are working together to develop a cultural health tool specific to the lake, to gain a more accurate picture of the cultural health of Te Waihora.


Hughey, KFD & Taylor, KJW 2008, Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere: State of the Lake and Future Management, Lincoln University, Christchurch.

Australian Indigenous water quality case studies

These 3 case studies help to illustrate the linkages between Australian Indigenous cultural and spiritual values and water quality.

Estuarine and lacustrine restoration project — case study 4

This study aimed to determine the distributions and ecological responses to flow of native in-stream biota in Darlots Creek and Lake Condah prior to the restoration of water to Lake Condah. Other aims of the project were to provide educational and capacity building for environmental works crew members of the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation and to foster partnerships between researchers and the Indigenous community of the Portland region.

The Budj Bim landscape in the Mount Eccles lava flow near Portland, Victoria, is a region of great natural and cultural significance, and its importance has been nationally recognised by its inclusion on Australia’s National Heritage List.

The largest body of water on the Budj Bim landscape, Lake Condah (250 ha), was crucial to the traditional eel fishery, and many eel trap structures still remain.

Major outcomes of this project were the interaction between researchers and members of the local Indigenous community and the inclusion Aboriginal participants as co-authors. This has provided training in aquatic research for 3 members of the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation’s environmental works crew, and valuable opportunities for Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research staff to learn about Indigenous issues and the cultural heritage of the Lake Condah region.

Given the mutual benefits of this part of the project, the project report recommended that further opportunities for involving members of the Indigenous community in natural resource management activities and ecological research be actively pursued.


Crook, D, Macdonald, J, Belcher, C, O’Mahony, D, Dawson, D, Lovett, D, Walker, A & Bannam, L 2008, Lake Condah Restoration Project — Biodiversity Assessments, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research Technical Report Series No. 180, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Heidelberg.

Water quality planning — case study 5

The traditional owners of Tully–Murray Basin, Queensland, were involved in the development of the Tully Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP) from 2005 to 2008. Their traditional and contemporary knowledge of water informed the plan’s development, and members of the local Indigenous community organisation were acknowledged as co-authors.

This experience highlighted the importance of direct and representative involvement of Aboriginal people in water quality planning, and the inadequacy of the environmental values framework for WQIPs to account for the significance of water to Aboriginal people.

The Tully–Murray Basin is located on the north-east coast of Australia and covers an area of 2787 km2 . The Girramay, Gulnay and Jirrbal peoples are traditional owners who continue to live in the area and have strong connections to their country.

In various capacities, Aboriginal people were involved in the development of the Tully WQIP through formal representative roles in committees and teams, direct involvement in research to identify their communities’ water uses and values, and attending events and field trips.

The experience illustrated that the involvement of Indigenous peoples in water quality planning has a significant influence at many different levels and for a diversity of purposes.

Indigenous people contribute to decision-making by providing advice (based on their traditional, historical and contemporary knowledge) to researchers and groups involved in the development of the WQIP, raising public awareness, and providing information for scientific research.

To account for Indigenous water uses, values and management aspirations, the environmental values framework and Australia’s National Water Quality Management Strategy need to be strengthened to provide effective means of integrating scientific and Indigenous knowledge in water planning and management.

Further shortcomings of the environmental values framework include that is does not provide a temporal dimension to account for lost values, and the absence of a specific water quality guideline values for cultural and spiritual values.


Bohnet, I, Kinjun, C & Beeron, C 2010, Aboriginal Involvement in Water Quality Improvement Planning: Experiences of the Traditional Owners of the Tully–Murray Basin, Queensland, Australia. Unpublished.

Larrakia values of Darwin Harbour — case study 6

This project aimed to produce a report on the cultural values of the Larrakia people for the waters of Darwin Harbour and its catchment, to guide the development of a water quality protection plan (WQPP).

The Larrakia Harbour Committee was established and membership consisted of 8 Larrakia representatives; one from each of the 8 Larrakia Nation family groups. The committee was facilitated through the part-time employment of a project officer, a Larrakia Aboriginal facilitator and the payment of meeting costs (e.g. sitting fees).

Suggested priorities for the WQPP funding for Larrakia Harbour Committee:

  1. Provide support and funds to report on the Larrakia perspective of the cultural values of the waters of Darwin Harbour and its catchment (rivers, streams and lagoons of the catchment and the estuarine and marine waters). The aim was to determine which waters were culturally important to the Larrakia people and whether some were more important than others.
  2. Report on how the Larrakia people would tell whether the cultural value was being degraded. Were the important attributes of the sites of cultural value? This was a question of how to monitor or assess the degradation of cultural value.

The report documented 3 overarching cultural values:

  • All water is valued.
  • Some sites are more significant than others.
  • Beneficial uses are different to Larrakia values, including agriculture, cultural use, aquaculture, public water supply, riparian, environment and manufacturing industry.

Consultation with the Larrakia Harbour Committee identified a number of values falling under a single overarching principle: that all water is valued and that the traditional and cultural use of the harbour is innately tied to an intact environment.

The very high values for cultural and environmental uses, and the many ways that these values are being or could be compromised, were described.

A number of values and concerns were raised that do not directly relate the WQPP but this report provides an important and immediate opportunity for the WQPP team, the Northern Territory Government and the Larrakia people to continue the dialogue on how to move forward, together.


Larrakia Harbour Committee 2008, A report on the cultural values and Larrakia perspective of the waters of Darwin Harbour and its Catchment, Water Quality Protection Plan, Department of Natural Resources, Environment and the Arts, Darwin.