Synergies between environmental flows and cultural water

In an interview with Brad Moggridge, Aboriginal water expert, researcher, and advocate, he described the relationship between environmental flows and cultural water 

Cultural water is water resources and water conditions informed by First Nations Peoples to sustain and benefit them, improving their spiritual, cultural, environmental, and economic condition. Environmental flows are, more simply, the sources and conditions that sustain water systems, and the people that need them.

How synergistic are these concepts? Can a cultural flow be achieved at the same time as an environmental flow?

Cultural and natural indicators considered

“In an environmental flow, we are trying to mimic a pre-development flow; wouldn’t Aboriginal knowledge be a great source?” Brad Moggridge, Aboriginal water expert

When environmental and cultural water is in synergy, cultural and natural indicators are considered in water management and planning. Instead of Indigenous knowledge influencing one flow and ecological knowledge influencing another, traditional cultural and natural knowledge is combined with ecological knowledge to meet the most number of objectives possible to achieve almost a dual outcome.

“Sometimes we want the same species, benefiting from both environmental flows and cultural flows but we don’t have a say in when and where water flows occur,” explains Moggridge.

The return of the brolgas

Brolgas are a type of crane that is vulnerable or threatened in some areas of Australia. The birds forage in wetlands and saltwater marshes, depending on the environment for their continued survival. Habitat destruction and the drainage of wetlands have put the species at risk. Drainage works and deep water storages are some of the projects that have caused brolgas to leave.

If and when brolgas return, it indicates that conditions are in place for both cultural and environmental flows. The same issues that threaten the species threaten the land and thus threaten the condition of the First Nations Peoples using and living on it. Wetland restoration is an example of synergy between the two types of flows, restoring the conditions needed for cultural water and giving long-term sustenance to environmental flows.

Fisheries providing multiple benefits and values

Fisheries are another example of where synergy can be attained, in helping a species benefit from both environmental and cultural water. Water quality, quantity, timing, environmental factors, cultural economy, and livelihood values all come into play when synergy is achieved in an area. If all of these values are in place, people can catch fish, a cultural values issue, that is legal and of dinner plate size, an environmental flow issue.

An example of how this works, according to Moggridge, is looking at the surrounding world. If a flower is normally in bloom when the fish run, per traditional knowledge, then that is something modern scientists and ecologists can look for to learn more about the water resource, using cultural values.

The benefits of synergy

When environmental and cultural water match, everyone benefits. This includes the scientists and modern ecologists who are looking for the best ways to manage water resources, as well as the people who depend on water for their livelihood and continued traditional and cultural practices. An ideal water resource is one that balances both environmental flows and cultural values, to make the most of a source in a sustainable way.

This does not mean that the term ‘environmental flows’ is a synonym for ‘cultural flows’, or that cultural requirements will necessarily be satisfied by creating arrangements for environmental flows. However, there are definite synergies between cultural and environmental flows that provide opportunities for managing water in a way that satisfies the needs of both First Nations Peoples and other beneficiaries of a healthy environment.

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