What water management can learn from traditional fire ecology

Australian land and water management are shifting to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). In an interview with Bradley Moggridge, he talked about how traditional fire ecology has transformed the way that some land is now being managed in Australia. Scientific literature points to ways that TEK can support improved water management, and how this is already being done in Australia.

Traditional knowledge is an aspect of environmental management that when incorporated and respected, can make the difference between successfully managing an environmental resource, or watching it fail.

Fire ecology and traditional knowledge

We can already see this in the field of fire ecology within Australia, according to Brad Moggridge.

“The ecologists might say, ‘Now is the time to burn,’ but traditional knowledge might say, ‘No, no, this is the wrong time to burn’”, explains Moggridge, noting traditional knowledge may include factors such as a change in season, when a plant has flowered or what a certain species indicates regarding the appropriate time to burn.

The Central Land Council’s Caring for Country program discusses the value of traditional ecological knowledge in fire management: “Traditional fire management practices stimulate new growth for preferred animal species and increase the abundance of favoured bush medicine and bush tucker plants. These practices are bound up with First Nations culture and spirituality and offer critical insights increasingly appreciated to be invaluable to the way we manage the environment now.”

By paying attention to the lessons of incorporating traditional knowledge into fire ecology, what has worked and what has not, those in water management can ideally use traditional knowledge to better preserve, protect, and manage water sources, too.

How does this apply to water management?

Moggridge says similar indicators offer the potential for water management.

“A subsistence species is on the move, it’s time to go catch them but when you get down to the river in a regulated system, the water is not there.”

When water managers are trying to emulate a pre-development flow of water, according to Moggridge, it makes sense to go back to traditional ecological knowledge, which is pre-colonisation itself. “Cultural knowledge can play a part in water delivery”, he says “but often, ecologists and traditional knowledge holders are clashing.”

The inclusion of traditional knowledge

One issue that environmental managers have encountered is that traditional knowledge is faltering in some ways. History and culture have been lost and taken away, leaving a hole in what information is available.

“Some of my uncles always said, ‘You just got to get back there and start listening to the environment and the animals because a lot of our stories are still there, we just haven’t found or heard them yet’” Brad Moggridge, Aboriginal water expert

By finding ways to uncover, and in a sense rediscover traditional culture and knowledge and by making a concerted effort to do so, people involved in fire ecology have been able to return to some pre-colonisation management methods. Burns can be on a timeline that mimics a natural cycle by taking into account nature’s signals that it is time. Water managers too should see the value in supporting the resurrection of traditional knowledge so that water resources can be managed in a way that fits in with nature. This can be done, in both fire ecology and water management, by paying attention to seasonal behaviours of specific species.

In terms of fire ecology, professionals have had to adapt to include traditional knowledge, understanding its value and finding ways to marry that knowledge with modern techniques and beliefs. Water managers have much to gain from doing the same, and including traditional knowledge, and its holders, in water management designs and decisions.

Many groups of traditional people were water keepers and water managers before the modern world with its ecologists and managers began to play a role, too. Instead of swinging from one group to another, a collaboration between both sides ensures a good transfer of knowledge, cooperation, and constant learning and sharing about the best ways to use, deliver, and manage precious water resources.

Learning more about the application of TEK

Want to dig deeper into this issue and read more? To get started, have a look at this 2011 literature review and its references which provide additional studies in this area:

Prober, S. M., M. H. O’Connor, and F. J. Walsh. 2011. Australian Aboriginal Peoples’ seasonal knowledge: a potential basis for shared understanding in environmental management. Ecology and Society 16(2): 12.

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