Study to enhance understanding of Murray-Darling Basin water cultures

Griffith University researchers have been awarded a $280,000 Australian Research Council Special Research Initiatives grant to improve understanding of the social and cultural attitudes to water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The three-year project headed by researchers at the Australian Rivers Institute aims to discover how the present attitudes, values, norms ad practices relating to water in the Murray-Darling Basin evolved.

Professor Sue Jackson

“Only once we have an understanding of the historical and present-day cultural attitudes, can we start to identify the entrenched problems that need to be addressed with the coming warmer and drier future under climate change,” said chief investigator Professor Sue Jackson.

“As the catchment for Australia’s most important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin holds a central place in Australia’s geographic imagination.

“While water researchers have tended to study its biophysical character, an understanding of the origins and development of influential ideas about the value of water and rivers in the basin has been lacking.”

The research by Professor Jackson and colleagues (Professor Katie Holmes – La Trobe University, Professor Lesley Head – University of Melbourne, and Associate Professor Ruth Morgan – ANU), will for the first time investigate how attitudes, norms, beliefs, and practices relating to water have developed across the Mildura, the Murrumbidgee and the lower Darling regions. The team will conduct historical research in each region and interviews with First Nations people, irrigators, graziers, and water managers.

“In this way we hope to clarify the basis of current thinking about water sharing and conflicts over water in this region,” Professor Jackson said.

“Drawing on insights from both environmental history and cultural geography, our team will analyse changes in ways of understanding and relating to water in the Basin, and how that has defined rights and responsibilities to share water in the region’s rivers.

Map of the Murray-Darling Basin (circa 1900)

“We’re particularly interested in what obligations, if any, people perceive they have to communities up- and down-stream, and the deeply engrained idea that water which flows past without being used, destined for the environmental or those downstream, is considered wasted.

This is especially important to catchment management and basin-scale water planning and allocation, and is essential to understand as public reaction to environmental water can enhance or impede policy efforts to restore the Basin after decades of over-extraction.

“By building stronger cross-disciplinary collaborations and establishing a Water Cultures Network, this research will integrate the value of social and cultural insights and methods to water policy development with those of environmental scientists and water managers.

The Special Research Initiatives Research Scheme provides funding for new and emerging fields of research and builds capacity in strategically important areas.