Cultural flows: we talk with Rueben Berg, Victoria’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner
Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have tens of thousands of years’ experience in water management. With the appointment of the country’s first Aboriginal Water Commissioner, Rueben Berg, in late 2017, the value of that accumulated knowledge finally appears to be dawning on its governments.
Foreground: You’re Victoria’s first Water Commissioner from an Aboriginal background, but this isn’t your first senior role that involves working with water – you also currently sit on the Board of Directors for Westernport Water. How did you come to be involved in the water sector, as both an Aboriginal man and an architect?
Rueben Berg: It was back in mid-2015, when all the board appointments were vacated for the water boards, so everyone had to reapply. There was a big push from the government at that time to try to increase the number of females involved in the water boards and the corporations, and also the number of Aboriginal people. I received some invitations to apply from various acquaintances. I was originally unsure about what would actually be involved, but then I recognised it was as much about place and community, which is a lot of what my work has been in over the years, in terms of place-making from an Indigenous perspective and cultural heritage management. Water fits in well with all those things, so while I didn’t have some of the technical expertise in the water industry, I felt like I had a good understanding of place and community and those were valuable things to bring to that water space.
FG: Why might an Aboriginal voice be valuable within the Commission of the Victorian Environmental Water Holder?
RB: The Victorian government has been very keen across a lot of areas to increase the voice of Aboriginal people in water and recognise the role of those communities in water management – not just currently, but recognising that we as Aboriginal people have managed this resource for tens of thousands of years, and that connections to land also include connections to water, and that water and culture are interlinked. The more Aboriginal voices we can get within the water sector, the better off all of the community will be. So that’s why I’m there, to bring an Aboriginal perspective, but also I bring my decisions to bear across all other areas of the Commission as well.
FG: What does the role of Water Commissioner involve?
RB: Victorian Environmental Water Holder has an environmental water entitlement for various rivers and water systems across the state, so it’s working out what the best way is to use that water we’ve been allocated for the environment, while also bringing about shared benefits. So can we also use that water to help Aboriginal communities, can we help with recreational uses…?
FG: The Victorian government has allocated $4.7 million from 2017 to 2020 to establish a state-wide Aboriginal Water Program to better recognise and understand Aboriginal water values, uses and objectives. Does your role have any bearing on that?
RB: I have a separate seat on the table with that – I’ve been appointed to the reference group, the Water for Country Project Control Group, which is my third water hat. That is looking at that bucket of money and how we can increase knowledge so that we have a better understanding of ways of using water from an Aboriginal perspective. There are applications out there at the moment for individuals and organisations to put in requests for some of that funding. It is a relatively new area to be looking at across the nation, water from an Aboriginal perspective.
FG: Given the diverse range of Aboriginal peoples in Victoria, is it possible to speak of shared Aboriginal values in regards to water and water bodies within the state?
RB: The work we do with the Water Holder is about what we call shared benefits – so how we can use the water we have for the environment to also benefit other things. What we’re talking about separate from that is how we can have some water that is dedicated to Aboriginal use. So it doesn’t matter if it’s bringing a specific environmental outcome, this is water that might just be for a cultural practice. Or it might also tie in with economic reasons, around aquaculture systems and those sorts of things.
When we do look at it, we are often looking at it in a very localised fashion. There’s generally not a program that’s across the whole state – it is about local areas, so that’s why I think it can come down to specific traditional owners. So if we’re talking about northern sections of the Yarra River, the Birrarung, we’ll be talking with the Wurundjeri. It’s a localized view of a waterway, so while there might be a common approach, in each waterway there can be a localized view of what those traditional owners want, for their waterway in their Country.
FG: The Council of Australian Governments’ National Water Initiative identified the need to bring Aboriginal voices to the table in a policy document last year. That document says that ‘Indigenous values are often not contained within a single, discrete water planning area, while water planning processes are focused on water resources within the relevant state or territory’. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
RB: Part of the issue is that a lot of the boundaries we’ve set up around these organisations, they vary. So what the boundaries are for the catchment management authorities, and the boundaries for the local councils, and the boundaries for the registered Aboriginal parties, none of those things line up. Often times, one waterway might cut across multiple traditional owner groups, or it might cut across multiple catchment management authorities. So it’s not just thinking about your little patch – it’s about working with organisations to think about the broader landscape. But that’s just one of the complexities of government administration we have to navigate – sometimes the boundaries just don’t all line-up where you want them to be.
FG: How will the incorporation of Aboriginal values affect the way we plan and design in and around Australian waterways?
RB: There’s definitely potential for us to change the way we look at our waterways from a design standpoint. A lot of small towns have a waterway and historically it’s been at the back of places. There’s a main street and then the rear of the buildings will face the waterway, which has been used in the past as just a place to dump waste. As we rethink our waterways, as we recognise the value they have from a financial perspective but also from a community perspective, and we enhance the flora and fauna we have in those places, now we no longer want to have our backs to the river, we want to turn and embrace the river. So hopefully in looking at the value of our waterways, not just as places to dump our waste and move boats up and down, but actually as the lifeblood of these places, design will mirror that and we’ll get a better connection to our waterways.
FG: I’ve seen the term ‘Cultural flow’ used to represent the value of water bodies to Aboriginal groups. How would you understand this concept? Is it useful?
RB: Cultural flow is a key part of saying, this is water that we want to try and use for Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples, across Australia, that doesn’t have to have an environmental benefit. It might be just about rejuvenating a cultural practice that happened for tens of thousands of years, but because we’ve modified the waterways can’t happen anymore. I think there should be water that can be dedicated for that purpose.
FG: Should we also talk of ‘economic flow’?
RB: Definitely. That’s one of the areas that the Victorian government is looking at – access to water for economic development. When you start talking about native title holders and other Aboriginal groups who have had their land recognised as theirs and the entitlements that come with that, water is a key part of that. Being able to use that water for economic uses, I think, is a valuable part too. There are a lot of challenges, because there is already a very high value placed on water as a resource. So how that fits in with that economic market will be interesting to find out, but there’s definitely keenness to work in that area and I think an openness as well.
FG: What do you want to achieve in your time as a Commissioner for Water?
RB: One of the things is to work out the ways we can empower Aboriginal people to be involved in water management, in whatever way works for those different communities. Also working out the best way we can harness the limited amount of water we have, to maximise the benefits for the whole community – for the Aboriginal community, for recreational users and obviously the environmental values we’ve got as a priority. How can we maximise the use of our water to benefit as many people as possible, so that when I take my kids down to the creek somewhere, I can say ‘see that platypus that we can see there? I helped make sure that platypus is there, that we can celebrate as a family.’ Hopefully that’s what I can get out of it.