Water is one of the necessary conditions for all forms of life, it is important to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike for environmental, economic and cultural purposes.
It also has significant social and spiritual meanings to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have adapted to live on the driest inhabited continent on Earth for over 65,000 years.
Water has an important place in art, sacred narratives, stories and song series in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. These social and cultural links to water places in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cosmologies vary significantly depending on climatic zones, bio-regions, elevation and also have cultural significance ranging from the mundane or every day to highly sacred and restricted access. Aboriginal and Torres, aquaculture with weirs, dams and channels, and hunting and fishing tools, such as hooks, harpoons and spears.
Although it may seem commonplace to distinguish between land and water, in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures land and water constitute a single cultural landscape. This landscape links the sky, the rain that falls down to flow into the rivers and the water that seeps into the ground. This water (recharge) travels slowly (sometimes taking millions of years) through porous rocks, and then reappears (discharge) as flows to rivers, natural springs, shallow aquifers, soaks or mound springs. The diversity of environmental regions and precipitation across the continent and islands was matched by Indigenous ingenuity in adapting their social and technological systems to the variability of water availability.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people established a complex knowledge base that enabled their survival on one of the driest continents. This in-depth understanding of the hydrology and hydrogeology in each country, and also regionally, allowed people to find and re-find water in the landscape. This may have involved finding deep pools or billabongs when the rivers were not flowing, or protecting rock holes from animals by creating purpose-built lids. Rules and laws were made to protect the quality of water, particularly in cases where the water was for human consumption. For example, one way to protect the potable water is to only drink from the bottom pool, not the top pool, to avoid contaminating both water sources.
The value of water was further elevated if the water places had spiritual links to ancestral beings. One common being is the Rainbow Serpent, which has many names, identities and stories and is strongly linked to many water places. These stories include the formation of creeks, rivers, lakes, billabongs, lagoons as well as springs and landscapes. In some tellings, if a person dared to upset the resting serpent in a waterhole or at the bottom of a spring, the consequences were dire.
With the arrival of the British and rapid and often irreversible changes to their country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have faced new water challenges. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people campaign to have their traditional water values recognised and seek access to their cultural places to undertake their custodial responsibilities and protect ‘cultural flows’ in water for future generations.