Indigenous socio-economic values and river flows

In the first study of its kind in Australia, CSIRO and partners have documented and quantified Indigenous social and economic values of aquatic resources and identified their flow links. The research was conducted over three years (2008 -2010) in two tropical river catchments where water planners needed information on Indigenous people’s water requirements.

The Challenge

Indigenous values associated with rivers are often poorly understood

At a time of increasing awareness of water’s value across Australia, it is vital that public debate, policy and management decisions about tropical rivers and estuaries are well informed.

In northern Australia, the size of the Indigenous population, its land holdings and attachment to customary estates, signifies a great need for water planning to identify and address Indigenous interests and values in water.

Indigenous people value rivers in a number of inter-related ways, they:

  • provide bush foods and medicines
  • are part of a culturally significant landscape
  • have the potential to sustain future water-related businesses and employment.

Indigenous values associated with rivers tend to be poorly understood by decision-makers, and some are difficult to relate explicitly to particular river flow patterns and to address in water allocation decisions.

In particular, the effect of changes in water availability on indigenous values and benefits is challenging to measure and to articulate in the context of allocating or sharing water resources amongst competing uses.

National water policy requires that water plans account for indigenous water requirements.

Our Response

Understanding Indigenous resource use and the impact of changed flow regimes

The collaborative project, which was part of the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge research hub (TRaCK), recorded Indigenous knowledge relating to water, described patterns of aquatic resource use and quantified the economic benefit to Indigenous people from water in the Daly River in the Northern Territory (NT) and the Fitzroy River in Western Australia (WA).

The research team combined qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the spatial and temporal pattern of resource use and to assess the impacts of altered water levels - or flow regimes - on patterns of Indigenous resource use.

Recommendations for ways of maintaining these patterns and relationships to river systems were made.

A participatory monitoring program was also undertaken with Indigenous communities in the Daly and Fitzroy River catchments, with the aim of developing indicators to monitor outcomes for water management plans.

Our partners

The project was conducted in partnership with a number of Indigenous communities in the Daly and Fitzroy River catchments as well as the Northern Land Council and Kimberley Land Council.

In the Daly River region, the project team worked with the communities of Kybrook Farm and Pine Creek and Nauiyu Nambiyu (Daly River).

In the Fitzroy Valley of the Kimberley, residents from the communities of Bayulu, Bungardi, Darlgunya, Junjuwa, Ngurtuwarta, Muladja and Noonkanbah were engaged along the Fitzroy River.

Representatives from a number of language groups were involved in the research, including Ngan’gi, Malak Malak and Wagiman speakers from the Daly region and Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Walmajarri and Nyikina-Mangala speakers from the Fitzroy region.

CSIRO researchers worked closely with many scientists from TRaCK partner organisations, particularly Charles Darwin University, Griffith University and the Australian National University.

TRaCK received funding for its research through the:

  • Australian Government's Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities initiative
  • Australian Government's Raising National Water Standards Programme
  • Land & Water Australia and the Queensland Government's Smart State Innovation Fund.

The Results

Providing objective advice to national water managers and policy makers

All partners in this project contributed knowledge that will both inform the National Water Initiative and be used as independent and objective advice by those making policy, planning and management decisions about northern Australia.

The project contributed to the development of a regional water plan for the Daly River Oolloo Aquifer (2012).

The project also resulted in a number of community driven projects that have publicised the importance of tropical rivers to Indigenous communities and brought scientists and local communities together in the exchange of environmental knowledge.

Project outcomes include:

  • improved understanding of the social and economic significance of water, rivers and wild resources to Indigenous people in the Daly (NT) and Fitzroy (WA) catchments 
  • systematic and comprehensive assessment of Indigenous values (related to flow) and impacts of change to flow regime
  • a tested method to assess, incorporate and monitor Indigenous values in water planning
  • indigenous participation in a trial monitoring program for flow regime change and wild resource use
  • collaborations that enhanced the capacity of researchers, Indigenous communities and managers to incorporate social assessments in water allocation decisions and planning.


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