Cultural water for cultural economies: pathways to water justice

The Australian Centre thanks Ashley Anderson for the careful and considerate revision of provided captions and transcript.

Webinar summary and key themes

Read the transcript

This webinar is the second in the Australian Centre's 2023 Critical Public Conversations series: Country, Climate, Colonialism.

In settler colonial states like Australia, the doctrine of discovery that dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of their lands also took their waters. Although land rights have been the subject of sustained law and policy focus, the original water theft of colonisation and the erroneous assumption of aqua nullius remains almost entirely unacknowledged and largely unaddressed, undermining the legitimacy of water law and governance. This legitimacy problem is intertwined with a more widespread failure of water law: to deliver ecologically sustainable water management. This presentation will highlight the work of Indigenous Peoples in the settler state of Victoria to develop new pathways to water justice, and show how their leadership has influenced the policy commitments of the settler state government in their 2022 policy document ‘Water is Life’.


Dr Erin O'Donnell is a Senior Research Fellow/Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne Law School. Erin is a water law and policy expert, and she is recognized internationally for her research into the ground-breaking new field of legal rights for rivers. Her work explores the challenges and opportunities these new rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. Her work is informed by comparative analysis across Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the USA, Bangladesh, India, Colombia, and Chile. She has also worked for the World Bank, examining water markets and their role in water security and sustainable development. Since 2018, Erin has been a member of the Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River in Melbourne. Erin works in partnership with Traditional Owners across Australia on a range of projects and in 2023, Erin will commence an ARC-funded research fellowship to explore the opportunity of treaty to address aqua nullius, increase Traditional Owner power and resources in water, and create more sustainable and legitimate settler state water laws.

The presenters have granted permission for this recording to be used for personal viewing and educational purposes.