Spotlight on First Nations water knowledge at Stockholm World Water Week

What a difference a year can make!

In 2021, World Water Week was online. In 2022, people gathered in Stockholm, and around 10 Indigenous and First Nations delegates held a session and brainstormed how to further engage and elevate Indigenous voices. In 2023, AWP has been proud to champion and support, together with SIWI, a First Nations Focus area which saw an opening plenary keynote address, five First Nations focused and led sessions, and indigenous speakers in at least 10 other sessions across the program at the world’s leading global water conference.

World Water Week 2023: Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World. 20 –24 August in Stockholm and online.

AWP’s objective at World Water Week was to elevate and create a space for connections on First Nations voices in water management and climate action. Read on to see if you think we were able to do so…

Supported by AWP to attend her first World Water Week, Dr. Milika Sobey was invited to deliver the keynote address in the opening plenary. She spoke of the importance of valuing indigenous knowledge in water management and the core values of the “vanua”: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationship, which embrace communality. In her call to action, she urged delegates to be agents of change: “To the water professionals here this week, ultimately, you are involved in the management of people and their behaviour not the management of water.  People thrive on respect, responsibility, reciprocity and relationships.”

Dr Milika Sobey addresses World Water Week delegates during the conference opening plenary.

Inspired by the common practice in Australia, Sámi representatives were invited for the first time to welcome us to their land during several First Nations sessions. The Sámi people are the Indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula, and they live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. The President of the  Stockholm Sámi Association, Inger Axiö Albinsson, expressed how honoured she was to have the opportunity to do so and the admiration she held for the practice in Australia.

This year AWP and the University of Canberra convened a particularly exciting session wholly led and delivered by First Nations and Indigenous representatives: “Two-eyed seeing: Indigenous values for climate-resilient water management”. Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall defines Two-Eyed Seeing as “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing, and to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all”. 

Speakers from the session titled: “Indigenous Voices in Water Governance”.

Speakers included five indigenous women and two indigenous men from Thailand, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. This included:

  • Inger Axiö Albinsson, Stockholm Sami Association
  • Milika Sobey, Independent Consultant, Fiji
  • Saengrawee Suweerakan, Network of Indigenous Women in Asia, Thailand
  • Erina Watene-Rawiri, Independent Contractor, New Zealand
  • Bradley Moggridge, University of Canberra, Australia
  • Michelle Hobbs, Griffith University
  • Phil Duncan, Galambany Professorial Fellow University of Canberra, Industry Adjunct Fellow & Hon Dr Griffith University – Australian Rivers Institute, Senior Indigenous Water Leader, Alluvium
  •  The moderator, Lou Ellen Martin, is from Australia’s Kooma and Kamilaroi First Nations and is an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and WaterDelegates commented on how wonderful it was to have so many indigenous women present in Stockholm and sharing their perspectives.  

Despite a fire alarm evacuating the building 10 minutes into the session, we were so thrilled to reconvene because of the stellar line up of speakers discussing: traditional knowledge in water resource management in Fiji, indigenous-led approaches supporting freshwater eels in New Zealand, Shan traditional knowledge on water governance, indigenous engagement and indigenous approaches to water quality and catchment resilience in Australia.

Following the two-eyed seeing session, AWP co-convened a workshop with Carcross/Tagish First Nations,  UNDP-SIWI Water Governance FacilityUniversity of Arizona and Alluvium Consulting, which offered an introduction to indigenous water governance and two-eyed seeing. The onsite workshop was fully subscribed, given the high interest in the topic. Phil Duncan led the workshop and overview, setting the scene for First Nations people in Australia, followed by Colleen James of the Tagish/Carcross First Nations in Canada and Lorelei Cloud of the Southern Ute Tribe in the United States, telling their water stories. Participants then joined yarning circles to share individual connections to water and how they can apply what they have learnt at the conference in their work back home.

Other First Nations and related sessions with Indigenous speakers included:

Participants in the workshop session: “An Introduction to Indigenous Water Governance and Two-eyed Seeing”.

As convenors, we can tell you it was a wonderful, engaging week, but we prefer to continue what we were doing in Stockholm, which is, elevating Indigenous voices and perspectives and encouraging Indigenous and non-Indigenous learning and exchange. 

  • “There has been a tremendous development since last year: from one session to five or six First Nations sessions, an increase in the presence and many questions asked to Indigenous people,” said  Inger Axiö Albinsson, Stockholm Sámi Association
  • “The family is growing and in warmth! As a direct result of the First Nations breakfast meeting last year, we have developed a book of Indigenous Women in Water profiles, “Water is Soul”. This is a book to bring voices to the conference for those that cannot be here”, said Seangrawee Suweerakan, Network of Indigenous Women in Asia (NIWA), from Thailand.
  • “Our pre-event (gathering 33 indigenous and First Nations people from 15 different lands and waters, and 7 allies) on Sunday was greatly appreciated. If there is an event next year, we may need a larger venue!” said Inge Frisk, Stockholm Sámi Association.
  • “At my first World Water Week, it was inspiring to hear indigenous people talk about land, water, knowledge and spiritual connection to water, and it would be great if this can continue,” said  Samwel Nangiria, Northern Maasai, Tanzania.
  • “We all hear the saying water is life, but what does that really mean to you? To really know the connection to water you need to talk to the native people in your respective area and find out what is going on. Water is so important to every single one of us: who we are as people, we are made of water…born from water…water is everything,” said Lorelei Cloud, Southern Ute Indian tribe, United States.
  • “The presence of indigenous people (at WWW) has given me optimism and hope. We are so connected to the world around us, our food comes from the earth, and whatever we do to it, we do to ourselves. We need to unite to protect our water and food sources. Water is sacred to humanity”, said Colleen James, Carcross/Tagish First Nations, Canada.
  • “I am taking away how to engage with indigenous communities, as the ones being the most affected by the water quality in the end. Thanks to World Water Week, I can now further include them into my work,” said  Anham Salyani, UNEP, Kenya.  

Another highlight from the week was the reception at the Australian Ambassador’s residence hosted by the Deputy Australian Ambassador with representation from the Canadian and New Zealand embassies, along with Indigenous and First Nations people and allies from across the world. Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations, Mr Justin Mohamed, gave a virtual address at the event, highlighting the importance of continuing to explore Indigenous Peoples’ contribution to more sustainable and climate-resilient water management in Australia and globally. The reception was also an opportunity for sharing gifts as well as dances and songs.

The efforts of Indigenous people from our region and around the world, AWP, the Stockholm Sámi Association, SIWI, University of Arizona, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and other key organisations has led to “Learning from Indigenous People” being named one of the six key trends of this year’s World Water Week. The other key trends include the importance of interconnectivity, broadening the term innovation beyond technology, adopting a source-to-sea approach from freshwater to oceans and building on efforts to connect international processes.

There is momentum to continue to spotlight indigenous and First Nations voices in water management at the 2024 conference and beyond. The theme for 2024’s World Water Week is transboundary water cooperation.

See more photos from World Water Week on Flickr.

Indigenous presenters during the session: “Respect, Reciprocity, Relatedness: Indigenous Peoples and Living Waters”.

By Katharine Cross and Isobel Davis
Featured image: Gathering of First Nations and Indigenous delegates & friends at a reception hosted by the Deputy Australian Ambassador to Sweden at the Australian Residence during World Water Week 2023.
References- Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2012). Two-eyed seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together Indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2(4), 331–340.
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