2 Nov 2022


Australian water needs Indigenous Traditional Knowledge to be the healthiest it can be, both now and into the future. In this revealing interview, proud Kamilaroi water scientist, WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Associate Professor Bradley Moggridge explains why.

“Gali Maayrr” is Kamilaroi for “No Water”

“Extremely rare expertise”

Indigenous water scientist is an extremely rare job title - WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author reveals that he is one of only three Indigenous hydrogeologists actively researching in Australia. “That's not a huge network”, Bradley admits.

“My research through the University of Canberra is on Indigenous water science researching how Traditional Knowledge of water can be better utilised in western water management”, Bradley explains. 

As Bradley writes in the recently published Living Planet Report, “Indigenous Knowledge, research and perspectives can be well placed to inform and complement Western science, but finding this common ground is one of the struggles of cross-cultural research.”

A lifelong passion for water research

Bradley’s fascination with water began in his childhood. His earliest memories are of noticing the health of small creeks near his home in western Sydney. “We used to play at the creek, caught a lot of tadpoles, guppies and things like that. But I noticed that the creek sometimes would be milky color, sometimes would be bright yellow.”

WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Professor Bradley Moggridge on Ngunnawal Country. (ABC Supplied)

WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Professor Bradley Moggridge on Ngunnawal Country. (ABC Supplied)

As a proud Murri man from the Kamilaroi Nation, there’s a deep cultural connection to water Bradley believes should be celebrated. “We have one of the oldest living cultures on the planet, and we're on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. [Traditional] Knowledge of water is crucial to our survival.”

Bradley explains that Kamilaroi people’s connection to water is felt strongest at places of high cultural significance - particularly to certain water places like Boobera Lagoon. 

WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Professor Bradley Moggridge at Boobera Lagoon (Supplied)

WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Professor Bradley Moggridge at Boobera Lagoon (Supplied)

“Boobera Lagoon has a dreaming story linked to it about its Creation, and it features a cultural being named the Garriya or Kurrea. The Garriya is a species that had a snake body with a crocodile head. Obviously, it was a nasty being, but it was the law and the story around the Garriya was to protect that lagoon itself. There are stories of sheep, cattle and dogs disappearing, even a young boy disappearing there. We still respect that lagoon, so we are never there after dark. You don't want to mess with the Garriya.” - WWF-Australia’s Governor, Professor Bradley Moggridge (Associate Professor in Indigenous Water Science, University of Canberra) - Kamilaroi Nation

First Peoples are united by their connection to water

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are united by their connection to water, Bradley explains. “It has become a key part of our identity, our language, gender roles, our lores, our songs, our dancers, our art.”

Aboriginal Rock Art in Keep River National Park (Courtesy of Wikicommons)

WWF-Australia Governor and Living Planet Report co-author Professor Bradley Moggridge at Boobera Lagoon (Supplied)

“You just look at desert Country art, it's all about where those water places are. They talk about water, they dream it, they sing it, they dance it.” 

For Bradley, water is life, and looking after water is part of who Kamilaroi people are. “When I talk about my Country, you know, we've got many rivers and The Great Artesian Basin, and also a lot of shallow aquifers as well. Water is a key part of our identity in connection. Without it, you die. It's that simple.” 

“Aqua Nullius”: how and why First Peoples have lost access to water

Sadly, evidence of the consequences of First Peoples losing access to water can be found in the sacred waters of the Boobera Lagoon.

“There are stories about the lagoon being crystal clear, so that suggests there's strong connections to groundwater or ‘deep aquifer’”, Bradley reveals. Despite the Boobera Lagoon Trust being established to care and protect for this culturally significant water place, livestock from neighbouring properties are still accessing the water, and destroying the riparian grasses that surround it in the process. “It's quite a murky lagoon now, rather than crystal clear as some of the old people used to say it was.” 

Aboriginal communities have lost their access to available surface water in many places around Australia, particularly around the Murray-Darling Basin. Griffith University Research Fellow Dr Lana Hartwig found that First Peoples hold only 0.2 per cent of the available surface water, equating to 0.1 per cent of the total dollar water value in the Murray-Darling Basin. Almost one-fifth of Aboriginal water holdings in that area by volume were lost over 2009−18 (at least 17.2 per cent). For Bradley, the question of whether this is a new wave of dispossession is easy to answer. “Absolutely, it is”, Bradley says.

“Water has had a tricky history because we're a dry continent. It's very political and obviously it's quite powerful in regards to, if you own it you have power.” For this reason, Bradley believes the subject of water sovereignty is a difficult one to discuss, largely due to the idea of ‘owning’ water is not compatible with Indigenous cultural values. 

“Throughout the history of this continent, especially the southeast of Australia, a lot of our mobs were on missions and reserves”, Bradley says. “All our good land and water was taken and given away to the settler. Then they created laws around how that water would be shared. Obviously, Aboriginal people weren't part of that sharing.”

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into water planning would benefit all Australians

The Living Planet Report identifies and highlights that landclearing and climate change are two of the biggest environmental threats. So how is landclearing and climate change affecting nature, and how can more Indigenous involvement in water management be part of the pathway forward?

“It's all around the way we value the landscape, value water, value biodiversity, value species”, Bradley says. “For example, our cultural species are not considered under the EPBC act. To become a threatened species, they have to be assessed under a scientific framework rather than a cultural framework.” 

Bradley’s research findings have shown that sharing, particularly knowledge sharing, is at the heart of what needs to come next. In the Living Planet Report, Bradley writes that “the knowledge and stories held by Indigenous Peoples have been acquired through many generations of observing and understanding their territories, and through knowing and protecting water.” Yet research shows the participation and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples Knowledge in Australian water management and decisions has been ‘rare’.

“I believe Traditional Knowledge, and also the ways of knowing and being an Indigenous person, can actually influence better outcomes and solutions for caring for Country”, Bradley says. The reality is, First Peoples’ cultural access to water is quite restrictive in terms of how it can be used to benefit themselves and their communities. He agrees encouraging First Peoples to strengthen their connection to water places is key to more Indigenous voices being part of water’s future in Australia.

“In New South Wales, there is a cultural licence where you can access up to 10 megalitres, which is not a lot in the scheme of things. You can extract it, you must pay for that extraction (water use). You can store it, you can water your bush tucker garden. You can interact with it in the river or in a billabong or a lagoon, but you can't make an economic gain from it. So, if you water your bush tucker garden and then grow quandongs, let's say you can't make a jam and sell it at the local market. Unbelievable but it’s true." - WWF-Australia’s Governor, Professor Bradley Moggridge (Associate Professor in Indigenous Water Science, University of Canberra) - Kamilaroi Nation

Indigenous water research methodologies are a vital part of the pathway forward

Bradley states in the report that the development of Indigenous research methodologies in the context of water continues to be limited in Australia, primarily due to government inaction, the limited number of Indigenous water practitioners and non-Indigenous researchers dominating the sector. 

“Our knowledge is still seen as, as it's not equal, if you know what I mean. It’s still seen as myth and legend”, Bradley says. "But you know, we've survived climate change. There’s research talking about people in Port Philip Bay in Victoria moving to higher country because of the sea level rising.”

Moving forward, Bradley believes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should have the confidence to “step up” and enter the water research space, and government needs to facilitate those academic development opportunities so more First Peoples can take their seat at the table. “We don't have a national voice or national water strategy with regards to water policy”, Bradley says. “I was at CSIRO for nearly five years as a senior Indigenous water researcher. And I was the only one there."

Bradley says the biggest thing we can learn from First Peoples is “the way we look at water, how we treat water, how we value water. As we say, “water is life” compared to water is worth $80 a megalitre in wet times.”

On a personal level, Bradley concludes by revealing he joined WWF-Australia as a Governor because he’s passionate about making as big of a positive impact as possible on nature’s future.

“There's a positive opportunity for me to make a difference. To have an Indigenous water voice. If I'm having impact and making a difference, I will stay the fight.”

Want to make a difference? Here’s how you can help.

  • Sign the petition and call on the Australian Government to commit to stronger protections for our wildlife and the wild places they call home.
  • Donate and join the community to regenerate nature by 2030.
  • Discover if threatened animals need protection in your local area using WWF’s My Backyard tool and find out how well they’re being cared for
  • Tune in to Scat Chat with WWF to learn about the weird and wonderful ways that animal scat (poo) is used to help wildlife conservation.
  • Find out more about how you can get involved to help regenerate Australia’s wildlife.