Author: Phil Duncan
Senior Aboriginal Consultant


Australia’s first climate change refugees vacated Saibai Island in 1947 as salt water inundated their freshwater supplies and they moved to the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The importance of properly managing the quantity and quality of our freshwater supplies as we adapt to our changing climate was highlighted at last year’s United Nations climate change conference (COP26) with a particular focus from the Stockholm International Water Institute’s Water and Climate Pavilion.

This is recognition that the climate crisis is a water crisis. The Australian Aid supported Australian Water Partnership supported me to talk at COP26 about the importance of including cultural water knowledge in any management actions designed to adapt to climate change.

I gave an overview about Aboriginal Australians’ experiences in trying to get their voices heard when it comes to adapting to the impacts of climate change and how these are a microcosm of Indigenous People’s lived experiences globally.

I am a proud Kamilaroi man. For as long as I can remember, we lived near a river.  And the river sustained us.  It provided for us.

The river and water are central to our cultural way of life, our cultural lore. The rivers provided, long before my arrival on earth. Our cultural science has sustained us for tens of thousands of years, and it is now time for this knowledge to be heard and included.

I emphasised in my presentation that in our view, there is no separation between people and country—including land, water and seas. We are interdependent with nature. The cultural well-being of Aboriginal people is directly influenced by the health of our cultural landscapes.

Aboriginal Australians’ traditional ecological knowledge, like their stories, are passed down from generation to generation and continue up until this day. This means they live in a symbiotic relationship with the land and water. They use water, they live from water, they nurture water. They sustained water and continue to do so, where they can.

Australia’s Indigenous voices echo throughout the river systems of Australia. Yet we are often excluded from current water management initiatives, including those directed at adapting to or mitigating climate change.

Every day, on our country we rise to make a difference for our people and our cultural landscapes, despite a legacy of dispossession.

Throughout our 60,000-year history, we have always thought in systems—cultural systems. This means we think both spatially and temporarily. We consider the people upstream on rivers, the primacy of where we are, and our impacts downstream. We think about the past, the present and the future.

But climate change continues to impact Aboriginal people. Those I have met with in north Queensland are dealing with dry river flows and shifting coastlines. For the Walhollow Aboriginal Community in northwest New South Wales, this means that despite solar cells (provided by Yuseph, formerly known as Cat Stephens, and his Peace Train Foundation) and brick homes, our elders still must collect water from one tap if they want a glass of water to drink or a cup of tea.

There is an urgent need to amend Australia’s Water Act 2007, which provides the legislative framework for managing Australia’s largest water resource—the Murray-Darling Basin. The Act uses non-committal language to call for a ‘regard for Aboriginal cultural values’ in water.

We need a real commitment to establishing an Aboriginal Water Holder (AWH) with a Board representing Aboriginal Nations across Australia. AWH’s role would be to protect, restore and provide for Aboriginal cultural, social, economic and environmental values.

We want to be the leaders and the decision makers in water management and climate adaptation. We know what to protect to sustain our cultural way of life.

The 2019 bushfires provided an example of how our fire-stick management of country can be used to avoid such catastrophes. Now our traditional owners are training professionals involved in fire management and control. Our knowledge is gaining respect and being intertwined with western science to better manage our country. We can do the same with water management.

Globally, Indigenous Peoples can draw on millennia of traditional knowledge to guide adaptation to climate change. We want you to walk and listen to us. But you must also hear and act upon our cultural knowledge.

Yanaay (Will Go) – We don’t have a word for goodbye.

About COP26 Water for Climate Adaptation

The session was livestreamed from the first-ever COP Water & Climate Pavilion. Watch the video of all presentations from COP26 Water for Climate Adaptation: Asia-Pacific Perspectives, with Phil Duncan presenting at the 39:39 mark.

Speakers included:

Bradley Moggridge, Kamilaroi Water Scientist, Associate Professor in Indigenous Water Science, Indigenous Liaison Officer – Threatened Species Recovery Hub, Centre for Applied Water Science, University of Canberra
Gracia Plenita Agnindhira, Knowledge Coordinator, Alliance for Water Stewardship Indonesia
Milika Sobey, Program Manager Pacific Islands, The Asia Foundation
Neeta Pokhrel, Chief of Water Sector Group, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, Asian Development Bank
Phil Duncan, Moree New South Wales, Member Gomeroi Nation Native Title Claimant Group, Alluvium Consulting
Dave Hebblethwaite, Secretariat of the Pacific Community
Semi Lotawa, Co-Founder Rise Beyond the Reef