No matter who you are or where you live, water is vital for survival. Dimity May spoke to Brad Moggridge, who is doing what he can to embed water conservation in the national psyche.
When Brad Moggridge finished school, he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, but the geology dux knew he wanted to contribute to the environment and to national resource management in some way.
Now Program Manager for the Aboriginal Water Initiative at the NSW Office of Water, Brad has built a career as an advocate for efficient water management in Australia, based on two very different educational traditions. A proud Murri from the Kamilaroi Nation in north-west NSW, his unique understanding of Australian water resources is gleaned from an environmental science degree at ACU, a Master of Science in hydrogeology, and his Indigenous heritage.
“Studying at uni gave me a physical understanding of how the earth works, rather than the dreamtime songs and stories,” Brad said. “Those stories talk about what people believed and how they built laws around how things work. To a nomadic people in a dry landscape, a natural spring bubbling out of the earth is significant. They think - I drink it, I better build some laws around it.
“They passed on those rules through songs or dances, to make sure that water was protected. You couldn’t swim in the top pools because it would pollute the bottom pools, or go into the river with animal fat if you’d been dancing. It’s all about protecting the water.”
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. The understanding of water, and the value placed upon protecting it, was critical to ensuring the survival of Indigenous people for thousands of generations. For Brad, it was this link with survival that first sparked his fascination with water.
“In dry times Aboriginal people would survive using certain waterholes. They’d use songs and stories to re-find those water holes when the rivers stopped running. That knowledge of water and philosophies around protecting it is something you don’t take for granted, because you might need it one day.”
With the focus usually on resources such as mining and agriculture, Brad said water is often taken for granted.
“Water is a key component in the country’s prosperity. We have a need for agriculture, and a need for mining, but we have to work out a balance. It’s a challenge, especially with water research being very politically quiet because right now there’s plenty of rain.
“We need to understand that water is not an infinite resource. Australia has gotten better in the way it manages its water, with recycling, and measures to restrict water usage. There are a lot of countries watching Australia and how we manage our water, and if we’re proactive and successful in the way we do things, there‘s going to be a lot of interest.”
One of the primary goals of Brad’s work is to try and bring Indigenous cultural attitudes towards water, and the value they place on protecting it, into the national debate on water management.
“It’s growing, slowly. The environmental flow debate, there’s great opportunities for Aboriginal people to have input into that at a national, state or local level. In NSW there are water plans, they understand the yield of that system. The great artesian basin is a great example. That’s fossil water, old water. People call it the ancient water. It may start at the top and take millions of years to get to a discharge point.
“Aboriginal people understood that ancient water was sacred and needed to be protected, but they hold a lot of their knowledge to themselves - it’s not a written culture, it’s an oral one. It’s all based around songs and beliefs and stories and lore, so it’s working out a culturally appropriate way to get that information into the mainstream, and find the linkages between Western science and cultural science.
“We can have direct input but it really does come down to jurisdictions. If they don’t take up our advice or don’t do the maximum they can with regard to what’s in the national water initiative, then it will just be the same thing over and over again, every year. That’s why it’s important that we include Aboriginal values and knowledge into some of the decisions and some of the research.”
For Brad, his complex understandings of Australia’s resources give him a unique capacity to contribute to the water management debate.
“My challenge is to bring the two views together,” he said. “We’ve got the Western science which is always gaining momentum and we‘ve got the cultural science, that’ll be my role.
“From my mum to my grandparents and great grandparents, it was pretty tough. But I’m here so I’ve got to make the best of the opportunities I’ve been given. I owe it to my elders and to my ancestors who made all those sacrifices for me to be here. ”