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Indigenous hydrogeologist Bradley Moggridge


Bradley Moggridge is on a mission to integrate his mob’s traditional knowledge pool with the formal science of hydrogeology. He explains the benefits to Andrew Masterson.


Bradley Moggridge.
Bradley Moggridge.
Australian Catholic University

When hydrogeologist Bradley Moggridge looks at a water course he sees things most others in his field don’t – and the sight prompts him to ask questions his professional colleagues might not consider.

Moggridge, 45, currently working on his PhD at the University of Canberra, is a member of the Kamilaroi people, one of the four largest Indigenous nations in Australia. Their traditional lands cover a large expanse of northern New South Wales and extend into Queensland.

His people lived on that land for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. Then, of course, all hell broke loose.

Moggridge’s research is focused on exploring his people’s traditional approaches to water management and integrating them into formalised Western science.

The two fields can inform and enrich each other, he says, but only if the traditional custodians get to be heard.

“An old living culture in the driest inhabited continent on Earth doesn’t have a say in water management,” he says. “That’s the point.”

The historical exclusion of that cultural wisdom needs to change, he says; continued exclusion is both culturally and scientifically invalid.

While policies to manage Australia’s largest and most economically important river system, the Murray-Darling, are informed by solid research and strong evidence, their actual application is strongly influenced by powerful lobbies, such as irrigators, farmers, miners and developers. Indigenous voices in the debate are largely absent.

“For a lot of our knowledge-holders those sort of spaces are quite intimidating, and they’re not places where they’re going to get their point across,” Moggridge says. “What I’m trying to do is build a body of evidence to try to demonstrate this kind of knowledge can inform water management.”

Part of that process, he says, inevitably involves quantifying ancient lore, or “putting a number on a set of values” – a difficult task. But there are also many long-term Indigenous practices that could provide immediate benefits as sustainable management.

Many traditional rites and activities, for instance, are triggered by water-related phenomena, such as particular species of fish spawning, or particular types of plant going into flower. Keen awareness of these, viewed through the prism of observations made over millennia, promises acute insight into changes in the health of river and groundwater systems.

Similarly, other expressions of Indigenous practice could help to achieve a balance between agricultural, environmental and traditional owner interests.

“If you see a living scar-tree, for instance, that’s something of deep spiritual significance to my mob,” Moggridge explains. “But you also know that, if there’s no surface water around, that tree is tapping into the water table.

“So that would be a good place to put a development buffer, so the tree is protected but the pressure on the water resource is also reduced.”

In the past, Moggridge has held positions with both the CSIRO and the NSW Department of Primary Industries. These days, he concentrates on his studies, and regularly speaks to other scientists about the potential of combining the deep knowledge of the Kamilaroi with the formalised systems of hydrogeology.

“I want to create opportunities for Aboriginal people to become involved in water management,” he says. “All the land and the water was sold off before Aboriginal people were legally recognised. Through land rights legislation there is now some level of compensation for that land loss, but not for water.

“Water has become a commodity, something to be traded, so at present the only way for Aboriginal people to access water in a management sense is to buy it on the open market.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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