Introduction to Water and Marine

The topics in this theme describe how water resources are used in NSW and the condition of freshwater and marine ecosystems.

One of the greatest challenges facing NSW is continued access to reliable sources of good quality water. Water use needs to be managed to provide an equitable balance between the numerous beneficial uses of water and maintaining the health of rivers and aquatic ecosystems. How water resources are allocated and the share of water available for the environment is described in the Water Resources topic for surface water and in Groundwater for sub-surface water. River Health reports on the ecological health of rivers and the effects of water extraction and flow regulation while the health of NSW wetlands is examined in the Wetlands topic.

Most NSW rivers flow to the sea through estuaries and the Coastal, Estuarine and Marine Ecosystems topic covers the health and impacts of pressures on these environments.

In this report:

  • The period from 2017 to 2020 saw some of the worst droughts in recent record. During this time, significantly less environmental water was available for delivery into inland rivers and wetlands.
  • The overall environmental condition of rivers is moderate but waterbirds and fish communities are in poor condition. The major river systems of the Murray-Darling Basin are generally in poorer condition than coastal rivers.
  • The abundance of waterbirds declined in 2020 to about 40% below their long-term median.
  • Groundwater provides 27% of all metered water use in NSW, a notable increase from three years ago when it was 11%.
  • Marine and coastal environments are in good condition overall, but the state of estuaries is more variable.
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Aboriginal Perspectives

Aboriginal Water

Water is essential for life to exist in NSW and for Aboriginal people always was and always will be at the core of their culture and ways of knowing, being and doing. Cultural and spiritual values may relate to a range of uses and issues, including spiritual relationships, language, song lines, stories, sacred places, customary use, the plants and animals associated with water, drinking water, and recreational or commercial activities (DAWE 2018). Water is also strong through lore, song, dance and dreaming and plays a significant role in the health and wellbeing of its people (Moggridge & Thompson 2021).

Australia is the driest continent on earth and Aboriginal knowledge of water is essential to the survival of its people. With thousands of generations of connection and observation of all Countries, the many Aboriginal Nations of NSW must be a part of its protection, especially the quality of its waters.

More recently, Aboriginal people have felt much sadness in witnessing the destruction of Country, the diversion, over-extraction, storage and pollution of their waters while their voice and control over the quantity of water on-Country is diminished under water laws that benefit postcolonial settlers to this day (Hartwig, Jackson, Markham & Osborne 2021). Modern water planning must evolve and consider new ways to share water resources fairly to ensure Aboriginal people can thrive through self-determination with free and prior informed consent over water decisions that close the gap in water ownership and improve wellbeing and caring for their countries.

Our freshwater surface and groundwaters are both important assets with value not as a commodity but as the essence of life. Where our freshwater meets the saltwater Country, this is also an important place to protect.

Connection to Country (Marine)

Coastal Aboriginal people have a strong connection to the marine environment. It is important to saltwater people that we keep that connection strong and it comes with a responsibility that was handed down from our ancestors. It is our duty to look after the saltwater Country that has sustained our people for thousands of years, so the next generation can have the same enjoyment that we have. The responsibility of looking after saltwater Country is everybody’s business, but to the Yuin nation it’s more than just a responsibility – it’s our spiritual connection to our dreamtime that connects us to our saltwater Country.

This is our Dreamtime story that I will share with you about why Yuin people are connected to the ocean and the land we live on.


This text contains the traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions of the Walbunja community. It has been shared with the consent of the Traditional Custodians of this community. Resharing any part of the text for any purpose that has not been authorised by the Traditional Custodians is a serious breach of customary law of the Walbunja community, and may also breach the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). For enquires about permitted reproduction of this work, contact [email protected]

Here is the meaning put into Aboriginal context:

In the stillness of the night slowly bobbing to the rhythm of the waves, the night sky guides our dreaming, the moon predicts the destined tides. This is where the magic begins upon the ocean and its horizon. Even in the day, with the sunrise and the sunset when we look and see the ocean and its magic is still there and still alive – the magic of spirt that still today shows us the trail from where Aboriginal people first came from.

(Our dreaming story is Toonkoo and Ngardi coming down from a star to this land. This story and many other stories from other Aboriginal peoples all over Australia share stories of their dreaming coming from the stars.)

The oceans are the balances to the land and when we sit between the ‘balance’ we see the path ... to the Dreaming and creation.

The path to our dreaming is the magical space created in that balance which is called ‘Mil-lum-ba-wa’ or ‘Mill-um-ba-wa’ or ‘Mill-um-bar-wa’ which is interpreted as the ‘sparkle of the waves’.

– Wally Stewart