Water rights for First Nations people: Establishing a Cultural Flows model on Tati Tati Country

Margooya Lagoon

Margooya Lagoon is a permanent wetland on the Murray River floodplain near Robinvale in northern Victoria. It is part of a cultural land and waterscape of deep significance to Tati Tati, the Traditional Owners and Custodians of this Country. If successful in achieving a government water allocation, Margooya Lagoon would be the site of Australia’s first cultural flows delivery.

Cultural flows are First Nations-controlled water rights underpinned by spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic connections. Cultural flows emerge at the intersection of First Nation lore and custom, and settler colonial legal and governance frameworks involving water, land, flora, fauna and people.

Two recent reports highlight the continuing deprivation of First Nations’ fundamental rights to water and propose legal, policy and governance options to address this through the delivery of cultural flows.

In this seminar, we heard from Tati Tati Traditional Owners Melissa Kennedy and Brendan KennedyDr Bruce Lindsay, lead author of a recent Environmental Justice Australia report that provides a detailed policy toolkit for Cultural Flows at Margooya Lagoon, and Dr Erin O’Donnell, lead author of Cultural Water for Cultural Economies, which links Cultural Flows to self-determination and cultural economic security.


This online event comprised a 60-minute panel discussion, followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session. The panel discussion was facilitated by Dr Sangeetha Chandrashekeran (University of Melbourne) and included:

Time & date

Date: Monday, 20 September 2021
Time: 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm


Brendan Kennedy (Tati Tati) is a Traditional Owner with deep knowledge and extensive work experience in the areas of Indigenous culture, language, art, science and advocacy. He is currently a Tati Tati delegate and Deputy Chair of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), and recently joined the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) at the University of Melbourne as Enterprise Principal Fellow in Cultural Economies and Sustainability. He is a member of the First Peoples Yulendj Group, who collaborated with Museum Victoria to produce the award-winning First Peoples exhibition; and has served on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee. Brendan has been instrumental in elevating the profile of First Nations Water Rights in the Murray Darling Basin, and working with a range of government and utility agencies to enable opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous communities.

Dr Bruce Lindsay is a Senior Lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia (EJA), where he has worked in law reform and litigation since 2012. He has written on a wide range of topics ranging from water law, planning and biodiversity, ecological restoration, climate change, urban rivers, and environmental democracy. Bruce contributed to the National Cultural Flows Research Project in 2017-18 and he has worked closely with many community, NGO and First Nations organisations with a focus on policy and environmental law reform agenda. He presently leads the ecosystems team at EJA. He has degrees in law (LLB, PhD), environmental science M Env Sc) and humanities (BA Hons).

Melissa Kennedy (Tati Tati) is the co-founder and CEO of Tati Tati Kaiejin, a grass-roots Indigenous owned and operated not-for-profit organisation aiming to reconnect First Nations people to waterways and Country. In her role as Tati Tati Aboriginal Water Officer, she supports river restoration projects, creates spaces for traditional knowledge gathering and sharing, and engages with environmental stakeholders to pursue Tati Tati water and landcare objectives. Melissa recently joined the University of Melbourne in the Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course, where she will contribute to research to better understand the relationship between water and Indigenous wellbeing, to empower local Indigenous stakeholders and enable policy change.

Dr Erin O’Donnell is a water law and policy specialist in the Melbourne Law School, focusing on water markets, environmental flows, and water governance. She has worked in water resource management since 2002, in both the private and public sectors. Erin is recognised internationally for her research into the groundbreaking new field of legal rights for rivers, and the challenges and opportunities these rights create for protecting the multiple social, cultural and natural values of rivers. Her work is informed by comparative analysis across Australia, New Zealand, the USA, India, Colombia, and Chile. In 2018, Erin was appointed to the inaugural Birrarung Council, the voice of the Yarra River.


Dr Sangeetha Chandrashekeran is the Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, at the University of Melbourne, and Senior Research Fellow of the Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course. She is an economic geographer with a focus on the political economic dimensions of environmental change.

Further  reading

EJA report __ Cultural Water report