Accepted paper:

Changing North Australian hydroscapes: indigenous attitudes to dams and water diversions


Marcus Barber (CSIRO)
Sue Jackson (Griffith University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines Indigenous Australian attitudes to historical and recent dams and water diversions, highlighting the intersection between geographical and historical variation in moral responses to the manipulation of water flows.

Paper long abstract:

Indigenous engagements with water are dynamic and contextually contingent, and contemporary attitudes and environmental valuations are shaped by diverse pre-existing water histories. Geographical variation intersects and interacts with such histories to influence the moral position taken by individuals and groups and their negotiating position as they engage in public debates or decisions about water diversion, management, and use, as well as the tradeoffs and risks of associated negative impacts. This paper draws together Indigenous historical and contemporary perspectives regarding the diversion, damming and manipulation of water sources from tropical watersheds that span Australia's remote north. The cases support the proposition that Indigenous people are often concerned about industrial-scale water diversion and damming. Yet our regional studies also undercut the notion that such concerns emerge from an Indigenous culture that passively responds to the prevailing hydrology, or the idea popular in settler Australia that these hydraulic environments are themselves unaffected by past human action. Indigenous attitudes to diversion and damming are informed by previous experiences of water manipulation, which include the social relations that shaped these practices, at times with demonstrably pre-colonial origins, as well as by contemporary perspectives on the tradeoffs between development, sustainable local livelihoods, and environmental and cultural impact. Our analysis of the Australian context draws on and informs ongoing international debates about hydroscapes and hydrosocial states, large scale irrigated agriculture, aquaculture, mining, and other water-intensive development in regions occupied by Indigenous peoples and experiencing high and increasing water variability.

panel P14
Hydroscapes and hydrosocial states: culture and the political ecology of water governance