Reconnecting With Birrarung
I’ve written many posts about my volunteering with Open House Melbourne and how it has enriched my knowledge and this week I was privileged to attend an event, which is part of a collaborative program between NGV and Open House Melbourne for Melbourne Design Week called ‘Waterfront: Reconnecting With Birrarung.’
The Yarra River was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people who occupied the Yarra Valley and much of Central Victoria prior to European colonisation.
It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning “ever flowing”. Another common term was Birrarung Marr, thought to mean “river of mist” or “river bank”.
Other Aboriginal terms for the river are: Berrern, Wongete, and Yarro-yarro
Water symbolises life
It is crucial to our health, the environment’s health, and all ecosystems on planet Earth and because of development and climate change, it is critical that Australia, the world’s driest continent, manages our water systems well.
Urban rivers are under pressure across the world, despite the vital ecological, cultural and recreational value they offer.
Open House Melbourne asked Melbournians to reconsider and reconnect with the river that runs through their city and consider the role design plays in reframing Melbourne’s relationship with water.
Waterfront: Cultural Flows
On Monday, March 18, in the Koorie Heritage Trust Gallery, Federation Square, I attended “an intimate conversation” with Rueben Berg, the first Aboriginal person appointed as a Commissioner for the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.
Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have tens of thousands of years’ experience in water management. With the appointment of the country’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner, Rueben Berg, in late 2017, the value of that accumulated knowledge finally appears to be dawning on its governments.
As part of Melbourne Design Week—an initiative of the Victorian Government in collaboration with the NGV, Cultural Flows was co-presented by Foreground, Open House Melbourne and supported by the Koorie Heritage Trust.
There is consistent interest in water (and recently the Murray-Darling crisis made that interest skyrocket!) therefore water management is important to discuss, but we don’t often think of it in terms of design.
Yet, Design is important to function – it is an intensely cultural act – our waterways were shaped by Aboriginal Australians and then came the effects of colonisation and settlement, the latter detrimental to our waterways.
Tim Flannery (Australian mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, author and global warming activist) described Melbourne as a temperate Kakadu before greed and corruption destroyed the landscape.
Most of us even think in a blinkered way about rivers – in terms of sewers or using them to fish. A report released Tuesday warned the Yarra River’s environmental health is being put at risk due to litter, pollution and invasive species.
Victoria’s Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability rated the river’s health as “poor” in 18 out of 25 environmental indicators in its first State of the Yarra report, which provides a comprehensive assessment of the baseline health of the ecosystem.
Nearly 180 tonnes of rubbish has been collected from the river system over a four-year period!
- Litter-cleaning programs removed 179 tonnes of litter from the river between 2014 and 2017, including 1.29 million cigarette butts from the river and its mouth at Port Phillip Bay.
- The report recommends planning controls be extended further north-east along the Yarra River. Between 2013 and 2017, the Environment Protection Agency received 338 water pollution reports — the vast majority of which came from Alphington and further downstream.
- It also calls for the creation of a chief biodiversity scientist to oversee monitoring of the river’s health. The outlook for frogs and fish was deteriorating in inner-city Melbourne and urban parts of the river system, but platypuses were assessed as being in a “fair” and “stable” state.
- The report found industrial sites likely caused more pollution at inner-city sites but
warns against ‘inappropriate urban development’ as Melbourne’s population expands in the north-east of the city.
Rivers are much more than rubbish dumps and recreational play areas.
The current river protection zone should be extended from Warrandyte to the boundary of the Yarra Ranges National Park, the report said.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the Government would consider the report’s recommendations and that care for the river was a “shared responsibility” of all Victorians.
Learning from the Wurundjeri
Melbourne’s first people have two moieties in their traditional group. There is Bundjil the eagle, creator of all that you can see on country – the hills and mountains, waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs.
The trees that give shelter to various creatures, and wood and bark for the houses or weelams of the Boon Wurrung peoples. He also was called upon to settle disputes between people.
The other moiety is Waang the black crow.
He is the protector of the waterways, rivers, creeks and billabongs. He makes sure that fresh water would run and be in plentiful supply for our people and the birds and animals.
As the driest inhabited continent, the rivers of Australia have been the focal point of life for up to 60,000 years for Aboriginal Australia. They play an important role in Aboriginal social life and identity but by changing how, when, and where rivers flow, water resource development has affected the way Aboriginal communities interact with the landscape.
Yet, until recently, there was little Indigenous participation in water planning and management as well as limited capacity and understanding within water agencies about traditional rights or values.
Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river and we can have much better outcomes if we do this in partnership with the Traditional Owners.
Important to remember that the land has not just been inhabited 200 plus years – what was the waterway like thousands of years ago?
Many of us have never heard of Cultural Flow or know the job of water commissioners and this free event was a wonderful opportunity to learn.
Rueben is a Water Commissioner in Victoria. There are four managing water holdings for the betterment of the environment. Our waterways are not free-flowing, there are chosen amounts allocated. Sometimes water is increased for the environment’s health to areas where there has not been enough for trees, canals, or wetlands to be healthy.
Irrigators have an allocation for agriculture but the natural environment also gets an allocation. These allocations must have environmental outcomes – not just for recreational purposes like swimming, although that is a factor in consideration.
Rueben, a Gunditjmara man from Framlingham a rural township located by the Hopkins River in the Western District of Victoria, Australia, about 20 km north-east of the coastal city of Warrnambool, studied architecture at QUT.
He played with Lego as a child and wanted to build things but when he began the university course, he discovered he couldn’t relate to the way it was taught.
He remembered having to watch a French film and then having to decide what architecture suited the characters. It seemed irrelevant and not realistic. That disconnect caused him to leave architecture and join the public service where he was designing houses for Aboriginal people with disabilities. Doing that meaningful work led him to the position he now has.
Diversity and Listening
No one has all the answers but we must consider heritage when we think about the environment.
Design must include
- the significance of place
- analyse the site before action
- enhance existing characteristics,
- the user experience very important.
Personally, Rueben has seen a positive change in his 18 months as a water commissioner. It has been an interesting journey – Minister Neville plays a strong role and Reuben’s presence highlights this. People think more before decision-making.
There is a lot of goodwill but also fear about getting it wrong and giving offence. His message is you will cause offence but get over it and do your best. (What good advice – race relations for many people can be a steep learning curve.)
He alleviates fears and initiates conversations. Aboriginals are a diverse community and you’re not going to please everyone.
He has been positively received – inclusion not an abstract concept any more. The culture within the industry is that people want to improve. However, he is an advisor, and ultimately it must be the Aboriginal people on the ground who decide.
What is Cultural Flow?
This is water managed and controlled by Aboriginal people. Let them decide how it is used, the rights to use – even where needed for economic benefit.
When solely managed by Aboriginal people, shared benefits are recognised eg. recreational fishing and swimming.
Self-determination is a great idea but the handing over of control may be hard when it actually happens. Although there is consultation, also cooperation, there is still no dedicated cultural flow in Melbourne.
There are broad themes throughout Australia regarding cultural flow – water must not damage sacred trees so controlling allocation important, if too much water, also if draining natural wetlands consideration must be made not to expose Aboriginal remains.
The common thread is maintaining a living culture. When considering water allocation we must ask what are the Aboriginal values?
- Protecting totem species – different ones for different clans
- Ceremonies are held at certain times of the year, therefore may need water where the flow has stopped or is limited.
- rejuvenation to encourage economic independence
Bolin Bolin Billabong, Bulleen
This is near Heidi and Italian Soccer Club. A large river red gum with a canoe scar is located at Heide Gallery in Bulleen.
It is a significant site but not connected naturally to the river so recognising the damage wrought by this disconnection water is pumped in to correct it.
The Ranch Billabong, Dimboola
In December 2018, Wotjobaluk Peoples marked the anniversary of their 2005 Native Title Consent Determination by returning water to one of their most culturally significant sites along the Wimmera River. Providing water was about recognising the past and honouring the present.
Barengi Gadjin Land Council and Wotjobaluk traditional owners turned on the pump that will fill the Billabong. Twenty megalitres from the Wimmera River will be pumped into the billabong and changes monitored to manage the site. The water is from the Victorian Environmental Water Holder’s Wimmera and Glenelg Rivers water for environment allocation.
Rueben explained that there is a fear of highlighting sacred places and exposing them to vandalism or people taking stones as souvenirs or to sell on eBay. (My initial shocked reaction that these things happen replaced quickly by sorrow because human beings are not really the best of Earth’s species.)
Rueben is careful of advertising much of the work they do, yet realises it is important for everyone to know and value a place and so preserve it. Aboriginals don’t want to go down the Uluru track where people have trampled on cultural and sacred significance.
Aboriginal people must be allowed to keep their traditional relationship with places and practice their culture and the overwhelming action/response needed is mutual TRUST and a determination that cultural flow will work.
Budj Bim, Lake Condah, Heywood
Formed by an ancient lava flow from what was traditionally called the Budj Bim volcano, the rich resource of Lake Condah – just outside Heywood – has sustained the Gunditjmara people for thousands of years.
The way the Gunditjmara people exploited the resources of the lake was sophisticated. They developed an aquaculture system not just to catch fish, but to grow fish. They were probably the earliest fish farmers in the world, one fish trap has been dated to 6,600 years old. Eels were caught and smoked and the Traditional Owners are developing the local eel farming industry to contribute to economic development and have an important education role.
Local Traditional Owners believe the area has global significance and are applying for World Heritage listing, a remarkable landscape, much older than manmade structures in existence.
In the late 1800s, Lake Condah was drained by European settlers for grazing land. In 2010 – following a native title determination – the lake was reflooded as part of a plan to revive the ecosystem around it.
From having no Aboriginal waterway officers there are now 22. Victoria is leading the way nationally and the current Treaty negotiations will give opportunities to have water rights discussions while respecting Aboriginal traditions in the knowledge that within different groups only certain people own certain knowledge.
Sharing that knowledge requires transparency and a reliance on stakeholders to navigate bureaucracy in good faith. Reuben must find out where and with whom authority resides within various local groups, develop a strong connection to the region, build relationships and discover who has access to the knowledge, and avoid conflict – this method has worked – so far!
The Aboriginal waterways assessment tool was imported from Canada after examining how their First People manage waterways. It is the intellectual property of our First People and the government accepts this assessment tool and doesn’t interfere. It is based on the relationships of Traditional Owners.
No tension yet regarding economic benefits, and there is always ongoing discussions when an approach is made and action is taken. Cultural Flow is referring to entitlement, it is not saying First People own the water but have an entitlement of access – for example, 4% of flow at a certain time
It is like a lease – you can sell some of the water allocations if water is surplus to needs; it will be used for other environments. The question must always be asked – what is landscape for the year and will allocation change?
The aim is to maximise benefits across the state.
In Victoria, the agriculture industry is generally supportive and the social licence of Aboriginal people recognised. They understand for the environment’s sake and the wellbeing of Traditional Owners, the balance must be got right. The Farmers Federation and Irrigators Council support Cultural Flow and are encouraging the establishment and use of frameworks.
International examples of cultural flow are NZ and Canada. Victoria is doing well compared to the national average.
Can we Rewild Our Creeks?
We have been modifying our waterways for thousands of years – therefore don’t rewild but bring it back to a time when people lived in harmony with the environment.
We should move to use Indigenous terms and language – refer to places by two names, change the river names to include the Aboriginal name alongside the colonial name.
Reuben suggests we learn the original place name of where we live, where we walk the dog or picnic. What is it called in the original tongue and get into the habit of saying it as a daily reminder of the cultural significance of place!
It also shows respect.
We must get the environment right or nothing will work – look at the Murray Darling mess!
- Water Commissioners can move water across the state – metaphorically and physically. It is like a grid. Water is a public-owned asset, and the government ultimately decides. So beyond Design – where the flow goes – is a political/cultural equation.
- Traditional sites in urban Melbourne might be managed by Parks Victoria.
- A part of the river may need more – water is requested – Aboriginal clans don’t have to intrinsically own the land – it is about partnerships. Not limited to having to own the land to request cultural flow.
Managing waterways is complex – and we are part of it. This land is a significant place and it is important to celebrate and appreciate the river.
Know The History of The Yarra
THE YARRA FALLS
Fresh water was the key to Melbourne’s location and to its development during the first 20 years of European settlement. In 1803, the Acting Surveyor-General of NSW, Charles Grimes, rowed upstream and declared it ‘the most eligible place for a settlement I have seen.’
John Batman had explored in the vicinity during June 1835, but it was George Evans and John Lancey in the ‘Enterprize’ who stepped ashore here on 30 August 1835 on behalf of Launceston businessman, John Pascoe Fawkner.
The Wurrundjeri – one of five tribes of the Kulin Nation – had inhabited the area for more than 40,000 years, hunting and fishing the bountiful wildlife.
The 30 painted and carved poles in Enterprise Park depict the scars they left in the river gums after making shields and canoes.
A reef rock running under the Yarra at this point prevented water downstream from contaminating the fresh water above. At low tide, there was a pretty cascade known as The Yarra Falls.
The river above the Falls provided drinking and bathing water for Melburnians until the opening of Yan Year reservoir in 1857.
The Falls was a natural barrier to river transport and the reef was blasted away in 1880 as part of the river widening and straightening works.
We can’t rewind the clock or reverse some of the poor decisions regarding our landscape and waterways but the current government in Victoria is making an effort and we must all play our part – especially regarding pollution.
The inappropriate development must be stopped and listening to the wisdom of Traditional Owners and working with them is crucial.
Rueben and other Indigenous water commissioners are aware that the environment is changing because of global warming and the various factors contributing to this change.
How water was managed in the past might not work and best intentions can be wrong but Aboriginals have inhabited Australia for thousands of years, adapting and managing and it is about enabling them to continue this stewardship.
Cultural Flow and self-determination must be supported:
Indigenous peoples are connected to and responsible for our lands and waters and in turn, Indigenous peoples obtain and maintain our spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihoods from our lands, waters and resources. These cultural and customary rights and responsibilities include:
- a spiritual connection to lands, waters and natural resources associated with water places
- management of significant sites located along river banks, on and in the river beds, and sites and stories associated with the water and natural resources located in the rivers and their tributaries, and the sea
- protection of Indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge associated with water and water places
- access to cultural activities such as hunting and fishing, and ceremony.
While it is not possible to homogenise all Indigenous cultural water values into one perspective, as Indigenous values are regionally diverse and complex, there are some commonalities and distinctions from non-Indigenous laws that are important to recognise and understand.
Indigenous relationships with water are holistic; combining land, water, culture, society and economy. Consequently, water and land rights, the management of resources and native title are inseparable.
Aboriginal people have a wealth of knowledge around managing water resources within the Australian landscape and have much to offer in land and water planning and management.
We need their help to maintain our waterways.
Today, March 22nd, we celebrate International World Water Day — founded in 1993 to elevate the importance of water as a human right, focus attention on the critical need to safeguard our freshwater resources, and promote the sustainable management of public water resources across the globe.
Billions of people are still living without safe water in both the Global North and Global South, and that’s why The Story of Stuff Project continues to fight for clean, safe, affordable drinking water. That means we support keeping water in the commons and managed by public hands, not private corporations.
You can pledge:
- I pledge to use reusable water bottles because drinking my local tap water is more sustainable than drinking from single-use, disposable plastic bottles, and doesn’t promote water commodification.
- I pledge to resist water privatization because water is a human right and a natural resource that should not be controlled by corporations that put profits over people.
Clean water for all is not only a basic necessity — it is a fundamental human right. Without water, there is no life.
Clean water and adequate sanitation are paramount for helping children avoid deadly diseases, ensuring girls can stay in school, creating jobs, and assisting economic, social, and human development.
Sometimes the stars seem to align, or perhaps it is down to the cliched six-degrees of separation, but several activities I’ve attended this week have all been linked to water, the environment and learning more about Australia’s First People :
- their knowledge and links to the land, waterways and the sea that we must appreciate and honour
- how the only way forward is to work together, building trust and sharing knowledge
- how there is so much more to be done to Close The Gap and ensure true equality and improved outcomes in all areas of life for Indigenous Australians.
- the importance of marine sanctuaries and healthy seas to ensure marine life isn’t destroyed and the health and integrity of Australia’s waterways are maintained. (more on that in a separate post!)
Today — on World Water Day … please get familiar with the greatest issues in the fight to ensure clean water for all.