Brendan, a Traditional Owner raised on Tati Tati country, remembers when his local creek used to flow. He remembers fishing for yabbies with his brothers and sisters and playing in the clean, clear, effervescently glistening water. Brendan recalls listening to the elders joyfully pass on their stories about how his ancestors had lived along the waterway for centuries: "The Elders talked about the creek as our mother: they used to say if you look after your mother then she'll look after you."

Brendan

Brendan is a Traditional Owner raised on Tati Tati country.

Now, many years on, Brendan is intensely aware of how things have changed. The creek he played in with his family no longer flows. The plants are dry and dead, and the animals that used to live in and around the waterway have disappeared. This loss leaves scars that don't heal. His people try to forget and move on, but they can’t: they are spiritually connected to these places.

This is happening all across Australia. Waterways, which Aboriginal people have lived along and cared for so many years are drying up. The cultural significance of these sites is being carelessly overlooked and water is being diverted to meet other needs in the area – often agriculture.

Brendan explains, "Aboriginal people feel lost without their rivers. Our ancestors gained a deep, ecological understanding of how to look after the land. This knowledge has historically been passed down from generation to generation by our elders. As our cultural sites dry up, so does this flow of knowledge within our people. This valuable information is being lost, like our native plants and animals. Our elders tell us, we must – like they once did – look after the land, but what can we do if our traditional sites have no water? We feel helpless."

"The Elders talked about the creek as our mother: they used to say if you look after your mother then she'll look after you."

This feeling of helplessness, Brendan later explains, can lead to a loss of purpose and identity. For those with little support, this can trigger serious social problems.

These sacred places now represent a dry and dusty reminder that Aboriginal cultural heritage is not being taken seriously in the political world of water management.

Fortunately, however, some momentum is now gathering behind the concept of 'Cultural Flows. Cultural Flows, is an initiative to give water rights to the traditional owners on their country, giving them the agency and support to restore the health of their precious waterways.

Brendan fully embraces the concept of Cultural Flows but expresses the importance of how it’s managed. "We – Aboriginal People – need to be given the responsibility for the entire process. From site selection and water management, all the way through to the project monitoring and data analysis. This way we can reconnect and care for our country using traditional practices and continue the tradition of passing stories down to younger generations – so that our cultural and ecological knowledge is not lost."

He goes on to explain how although the world has changed and although there is no way that Aboriginal people can now live on the land as they used to, that Cultural Flows will give them back the life-balance they need to heal. The balance between the modern capitalist world of consumption and the old traditional world of connection.

These sacred places now represent a dry and dusty reminder that Aboriginal cultural heritage is not being taken seriously in the political world of water management.

Brendan explains, "The cost of living is continually increasing, we have to adapt to modern life in Australia to survive, but not at the cost of losing who we are, losing our identity. If Cultural Flows restore our rivers, then we can spend a few days a week in the bush and a few days back in the city. We'll be able to listen and feel life on the creek again. Nature will nurture us, and we'll return the favour."

Brendan finishes by explaining that Cultural Flows will not only satisfy the social and cultural needs of his people but that they will generate environmental and economic value as a result of increased knowledge flow leading to ecological health.

The good news is that the National Cultural Flows Research Project is in full swing. Results from two test Cultural Flow sites have been gathered and are likely to support the recommendation that communities like Brendan's should be allocated water in the same way that farmers and environmental sites are. This will create an agile national water policy that caters for the needs of all communities within the Murray-Darling Basin.

Until this happens, Brendan and communities like his will continue to suffer. Their spiritual connection to the waterways they hold so dear will continue to be torn away. Indigenous communities have looked after and lived along these waterways for centuries. They deserve more than this.

Neil Sutton

ACF Volunteer for the Murray-Darling Campaign