Man sitting on lake, thinking about the environment.

A TEDx perspective on protecting Australia’s waterways

Published on
December 9, 2021
Written By
Sam Amar

Here’s how we protect Australia’s rivers – according to an Indigenous Scholar, a doctor of Agriculture and an iconic environmental lawyer

“A dear friend, mentor, water walker, Nokomis, Grandmother Josephine Mandamin-ba, she told me of a prophecy …that tells of a day that will come where an ounce of water costs more than an ounce of gold. When she told me that prophecy, I sat for a moment, and I thought about all of the injustices we see in our world today, the water crises we see in our world today, and I said, "Nokomis, Grandmother, I feel like we are already in that time of prophecy." And she looked back at me directly, and she said, "So what are you going to do about it?" 

This is an excerpt from Kelsey Leonard’s 2019 TED Talk ‘Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans’, … and the very same question we posed to our three featured guests and 60 community members who took part in the discussion for Everyone’s Environment - our latest TED Circle digital event. 

Protecting our environment against human exploitation is a task that seems insurmountable at a glance, yet it requires a collective action our world has never seen before. With this in mind, Everyone’s Environment focused on creating a holistic discussion around what is required, on an actionable, legal level, to protect not just our rivers from extinction, but if you want to be dramatic (and accurate, according to our experts) – life itself.  

Water is life 

It may sound obvious, but despite being recognised as a Human Right by the UN, access to water is something that many of us in Australia take for granted. It may come as a surprise to some that <1% of the earth’s water is the clean, accessible kind that sustains all life - and that we’re currently depleting these resources at an unsustainable rate. 92% of this water’s use goes towards agriculture, and in Australia we use 53% of our land mass for agriculture alone. This staggering statistic makes us one of the highest (per capita) water users in the world as our first featured guest Dr Anika Molesworth relayed some of the impacts that the last five years of drought has had on our farming.

Our land management must change

Dr Anika Molesworth hails from far-west NSW, where droughts and dust storms have increased in line with the sweltering temperatures felt every summer. “No one under the age of 43 has known a time where year-on-year temperature hasn’t increased” Anika explained to us, which justifies the emotional reactions that rural farming communities can have when discussing water. Because farmers are the shepherds of their lands and animals, just as Indigenous Australians are, grief is felt on a visceral level.

Drought, too, dries up the populations of rural communities. As farming becomes unprofitable, communities are forced out of agriculture and away from their communities. Dr Anika urged that we have all been called upon to step up, as society’s health is, and always has been, directly linked to the wellbeing of the natural world. 

But how can we act? “We need many arrows in our quiver on this matter”, says Dr Anika. The law must change to uphold rivers’ interests, cultural norms must change to influence the government, education must be based on Indigenous wisdom and we need to engage people via emotional and honest storytelling. Ultimately, we need individuals to feel empowered to take change into their own hands.

Our law must change 

Dr Anika gave a fitting segue into our second featured guest: a legendary former judge specialising in environment and heritage; Simon Molesworth.  A core concept of Kelsey Leonard’s talk is seeking protection of rivers by granting them legal personhood.  We asked him if this could be what saves our rivers from running dry? How can a river even be considered a person? 

Legal personhood, Simon explained, is a rule based system where participants have certain legal rights guaranteed. If these are impeached, legal action can be taken to cease the activity or pay for damages. Given the river must have some form of human representative, it’s vital that philosophy and expression is worded into the legislation required for granting personhood to environmental entities. The Wanganooi river in New Zealand has enjoyed such a classification, which has seen it preserved close to the state it enjoyed for thousands of years prior to colonisation. 

However, under this model of litigation there is still an ongoing opportunity for “forces of darkness” to turn back the clock on progressive environmental policy under laws like this. As Dr Anika reminded us, “you can’t solve the problem with the same system that created it”. Simon stated that we can generally trace all environmental exploitation in Australia back to property ownership being the foundation of our legal system. As a result, the only way that our waterways can guarantee cultural and ecological function is reform on a constitutional level to alter existing notions of nature as being ownable and exploitable for capital gain.

Ultimately, how we view connection to land must change

Our final featured guest, Dr Anne Poelina, Scholar and Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Custodian, cited the segmentation of law as being the biggest factor in mitigating positive environmental change. She called for a fusion of Indigenous teachings, crown law, common law and native title for our waterways and wider environment to be properly protected. 

To Dr Anne, Kelsey’s video displayed the uniformity of the Indigenous experience in connection to land, irrespective of country or location. A duty of care for the land emerges because of first-hand experience that all Indigenous Australian culture is built around. Aboriginal spirituality is totemic, meaning spiritual value is instilled in the environment. Individuals inherit a natural object, plant or animal as a ‘totem’ which they must deeply understand and protect. These totems are extremely significant in aboriginal culture, however they also serve as a first-hand education on the vitality of environmental preservation. 

Elliot, a TEDxMelbourne community member, saw exploitation of nature as a symptom of the heart / mind disconnect widespread across the modern Western world. A lack of first-hand experience disconnects our rhyme from our reason. 

Jefry, a West Papuan by birth, agreed from first-hand experience. He was taught growing up to survive by knowing the feel of the country, rather than needing money to feed and shelter himself. Through this symbiosis he gained a connection with the land. 

Here’s the good news

Post-colonisation, we’ve never been in a better time to demand an environmental agenda. The common message from all three of our featured guests was the definitive power of, and need for, individual action. We all have a circle of influence and are all capable of using it for good. Although a grim reminder, Coronavirus has truly shown us the power an individual can have on their community. 

As Simon mentioned, a global shift toward human rights has seen an understanding of the need for harmony with nature. Our place as an equal member within the ecosystem is slowly being understood, and measures like granting rivers personhood recognises the viewpoint long championed by Indigenous Australians that destroying the environment will ultimately destroy humans.

So should we begin granting legal personhood to our rivers? Can we start questioning issues like privatisation of river water for agriculture? “These are big questions,” Dr Anne admitted, but pressed upon us that “we as a country are ready to ask them. We are ready to form a collective wisdom and connect with nature, and we are ready to demand our leaders do the same”. 

In closing our TED Circle, Dr Anne provided a beautiful thought for us all.  She reflected that she was recently told that some environmental groups believe that “if we don’t act now, we will leave Mother Nature behind”- but felt this wasn’t right. “Mother Nature is powerful, she will always come back and thrive…”.  Pausing briefly she added, ”… but she will not want to. She will be lonely without the vibrations of humans.”

So, now we have a legal, agricultural and Indigenous perspective on how we can protect our waterways, what’s stopping us from changing Australian priorities on conservation? As Dr Anne so aptly noted - “We have to come together as a world, because we are one”.

TED Circles
Photo of Sam looking very cool!
Written By
Sam Amar

Maker of things & adventurer based in Melbourne. I spend a lot of time running around with a camera, but can also be found behind the virtual TEDxMelbourne social media desk.

Photo of Sam looking very cool!
Written By
Sam Amar

Maker of things & adventurer based in Melbourne. I spend a lot of time running around with a camera, but can also be found behind the virtual TEDxMelbourne social media desk.