Water and the politics of environmental knowledge

This is the sixth post in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Leah Gibbs writes on the matter of water and the politics of environmental knowledge.

Early explorers of the Australian inland were so confident of finding fresh water that many carried boats with them on their expeditions. Finding the ‘inland sea’ – or a major inland river or lake upon which they could base a settlement – became a significant motivation for exploration. Expeditions were driven by social expectations of what the landscapes of this vast new continent should provide for the emerging nation.

But expectations were based on European environmental knowledge, imported from the British Isles through colonisation, and plonked onto Australian nature. A pattern of expectation and interaction set in train early in the colonial period continues to shape settler relations with water, and the politics of environmental knowledge.

In my last post I wrote about the bureaucratic and conceptual separation that characterises water management in Australia. This politics of separation is sourced in colonial relations with water and the Australian continent, and it continues to shape contemporary water management and politics. In a forthcoming paper I argue that ‘taking seriously’ the matter of water might provide a way of reframing the politics of water, and overcome the idea of water as separate.

Here I trace the matter of water through a sculpture ‘Sturt’s Boat’ by Anthony Hamilton. I want to suggest that paying greater attention to Indigenous and local knowledge might help shift thinking and practice in water management, and contribute to the ongoing process of decolonisation.

‘Prepared for a voyage’  Among those who carried boats into the inland was Charles Sturt. In 1844 he wrote: ‘I have a strange idea that there may be a central sea not far from the Darling in 29°, and I should be prepared for a voyage’. Sturt was driven as much by social expectations as by the physical signs of rivers flowing and birds flying inland. He knew that only hollow thanks went to discoverers of dry country.

He included in his party two sailors and one boat. They travelled north through what came to be known as Sturt’s Stony Desert, until they reached the sand sea of the Simpson Desert. At this point they turned back, gravely disappointed at having not found the inland sea. But Sturt returned with knowledge of the Murray and Darling Rivers, and evidence of the aridity of the inland.

Sturt could only make this journey with the help of others. Australian landscapes were vastly different to the temperate ones he knew, and water couldn’t be found using the same knowledge. So Sturt, like many others, relied on local Aboriginal people for survival. The need to find water in unknown landscapes shaped relations between Sturt’s party and Aboriginal peoples.

The history of colonial relations in Australia is marked by violence and dispossession. But records suggest that Sturt maintained good rapport with the Indigenous people he met on his expeditions. Sturt’s experience points to the complexity of settler relations with Aboriginal peoples: at times and in places people have listened and learned.

‘Sturt’s Boat’ by Anthony Hamilton. Tibooburra Pioneer Park.
Photo: LM Gibbs

Sturt’s Boat  Anthony Hamilton’s sculpture ‘Sturt’s Boat’ is a full-scale replica of the boat Sturt hauled across the inland. The sculpture sits in Tibooburra, in far northwest NSW, not far from where Sturt abandoned his own boat. The sculpture refers to a specific moment in the colonisation of Australia, and to attitudes that prevailed at the time: expectations of what the landscape would offer, and confidence that they would be fulfilled. These expectations continue to shape how we think about and govern water. Water policy is still informed by ideas of what the landscape should provide, rather than seeking to understand and adapt to place.

Seeing the boat in situ is striking; it contrasts starkly with the surrounding arid landscape. It combines historical and contemporary ideas about the inland, and brings humour to a familiar history. Australians are now so familiar with the idea of a dry and variable inland that we can now mock the notion of an inland sea.

The upside-down boat might simply refer to the way boats are often stored. But it might also be interpreted as ‘turning on their head’ ideas held by Australia’s colonisers. Hamilton’s sculpture might be read as a commemoration of Sturt’s journey, and it might be read as an act of resistance to colonisation; resistance to the importation to this landscape of ideas developed elsewhere.

The inverted boat also brings to mind the contemporary upside-down boats on rooftops of 4WD vehicles frequently spotted in the desert. Despite a new understanding of the inland, we continue to relate to the desert in this way: by seeking out the surface water. Irrespective of the reading we make, the sculpture is part of a postcolonial continuity, reflecting how ideas are reworked and resisted.

Learning  Sturt’s Boat points to how Australian relations with the inland have been shaped by environmental knowledge of other places. As part of this process, Indigenous knowledge systems and ways of life have been marginalised (and in many cases brutalised). These processes continue in contemporary water management. But Sturt’s Boat also points to resistance and reworking of colonial relationships.

In previous work I have argued that environmental and natural resource management are based on and limited by Eurocentric knowledge. Continued marginalisation of Indigenous and local knowledge misses opportunities for learning. Paying greater attention to such knowledge can unsettle dominant ways of thinking, situate European narratives in their social, cultural and political context, and open space for more ethical and appropriate environmental management.


Keep your eyes peeled for future posts on the theme Drought, Flood and Water from Lesley Head, Emily O’Gorman, Leah Gibbs and other AUSCCERites. 

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