“To Aboriginal peoples, water is life. On a dry continent like Australia, fresh water is of the utmost importance. The water in rivers sustains important plants on riverbanks, and sustains wetlands where fish and turtles breed. Aboriginal peoples in the past used water from rivers for all their water needs—drinking, fishing, and washing. As well as using the water, spending time on rivers and billabongs is central to intergenerational knowledge and cultural transfer, and family time. There are thousands of years of memories in these water places. There are also many sacred places on rivers and in waterholes … and important cultural places such as mens and womens places.” – Indigenous voices in water, University of Melbourne Indigenous Knowledge Institute


In 2023, we were engaged by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment to co-develop Cultural Watering Plans with and for the Arakwal community in Byron Bay and the Banbai community in Guyra.

This work was spurred on by the NSW Water Strategy, which identified cultural flow access[1], and self-determination and decision-making as two key challenges and opportunities to increase Aboriginal ownership of and access to water.

For both the Arakwal community and the Banbai community, the Cultural Watering Plans were conceived as strategic documents that:

  • formally record each community’s cultural values associated with the waterways (and groundwater sources) of interest
  • summarise the hydrology, ecology, related water licensing and policy, and the threats facing the waterways
  • describe each community’s immediate needs and short- to long-term goals related to Culture, hydrology, ecology, and governance and resourcing
  • detail how each goal will be measured and monitored, including performance targets
  • provide recommendations for tangible next steps for each community and the Department of Planning and Environment, to encourage implementation of the plan.

The intention is for communities to be able to use these Plans to better advocate for their water-related rights and values, and plan and measure the achievement of their aspirations, and for government bodies to be able to identify where they can support each community in delivering the Plans.

Whether yarning with Arakwal community members while wandering through the Wallum dunes or listening to the Banbai Elder’s stories while four-wheel driving in granite Country—this project was an absolute joy to be a part of.

The natural world is the single biggest source of inspiration for us, and its degradation and precarious future is a major contributor to our sleepless nights[2]. We earnestly believe that, particularly for local solutions, one of the best ways forward is to listen to and embed Indigenous knowledge and practice into the ways ecological systems are conceptualised, measured and managed.

The world has changed immensely since Aboriginal people were the only human custodians of the lands and waters of NSW. The systems through which governments manage the natural world have evolved from colonial mindsets and are not always fit-for-purpose or easy to navigate. With this project, we had the opportunity to work together to integrate Aboriginal perspectives and cultural needs into existing systems of water governance, for the benefit of the communities we worked with and the ecological systems that are intertwined with their Culture and identity.

We saw one of our key roles as that of translator:

  • From government to community: translating “policyspeak” and hydrological and ecological jargon into something accessible and culturally resonant.
  • From community to government: translating each community’s concerns and aspirations—and the ways they conceive the unity of Culture, water, land and life—into something measurable and appropriately rigorous that aligns with existing policy and legislation.

We’re not going to pretend like we cracked the code or used some unique and game-changing new technique to meaningfully engage the Banbai and Arakwal communities—namely because it’s not about us, and because what we did was quite simple. We listened. After all, how could we translate without first hearing what was being said?

Listening and repeatedly building trust with the Arakwal and Banbai communities was important in allowing them to feel safe and comfortable opening up about what was threatening their waterways, how they and their ancestors used and cared for the waterways, and dreamtime stories and ceremonies that had been practiced at their waterways and surrounding lands.

Our engagement was not rigid or extractive—rather, we wanted our conversations to meander and flow naturally like the creeks we walked along. We met on Country many times to check that our work developing parts of the Plans did not misrepresent what we heard at previous visits, and every time we met on Country we became more and more familiar with each community.

The final Cultural Watering Plans are each a culmination of many conversations between the NSW government and the Arakwal and Banbai communities, translated through us. They exist because of the Arakwal and Banbai communities’ openness and willingness to share with us, and we humbly thank them for this.

Our hope for these documents is that they:

  • empower and build the capacity of the Arakwal and Banbai communities to achieve and monitor their goals,
  • galvanise the NSW government and other collaborators such as Universities to partner with the Arakwal and Banbai communities, and
  • protect the waterways on Arakwal and Banbai Country, allowing native plants and animals to thrive, and preserving these important places for community use for generations to come.

Our hope for you as a reader is that you think about ways you might be able to support the Arakwal and Banbai communities to implement their Cultural Watering Plans. Do you know any ecologists or hydrologists that could support surveys or modelling? Are you aware of funding or training opportunities to help build the capacity of the Bundjalung of Byron Bay Aboriginal Corporation or the Banbai Rangers? Developing these Plans was just the first step—will you take the next step with us?

If you would like to know more about how you can support the Arakwal and/or Banbai communities to implement their Cultural Watering Plans, use the contact details below

  • Arakwal community (Byron Bay): Mail to Bundjalung of Byron Bay Aboriginal Corporation, PO Box 1555, Byron Bay NSW 2481, or call (02) 6685 8746.
  • Banbai community (Guyra): Mail to Guyra Local Aboriginal Land Council, PO Box 215, Guyra NSW, 2365, or call (02) 6779 1803.

 Tallow Creek on Arakwal Country ends in an ICOLL (Intermittently Closed and Open Lake or Lagoon) which naturally overflows into the ocean after heavy rainfall.
The Sara River flows through the Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area on Banbai Country, which is managed by the Banbai Rangers.

[1] Cultural flow is defined by the 2007 Echuca Declaration as ‘water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, natural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Nations’.

[2] “Us” being the project team: Jack Rutherford, Ellen Wong, Keely Mitchell and Elizabeth Luland.

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