The floods tell us the river is sick. We should listen to Indigenous knowledge to help Country heal

27 08 2022 | 07:24Oliver Costello

Our family, community and Country were severely impacted by the extreme rain and floods around Lismore in February and March 2022.

Fortunately, our place at Rosebank was only subject to minor damage from stormwater runoff during the torrential downpours. But I’m upset about the way Country has and is being treated both locally and globally.

Many of the old people looked after and knew how to live on Country in a healthy way. Now, I fear we will just blame the rain. We have a big opportunity to learn, and I hope we do for our own sake. We need to honour the old people’s ways and help restore Country.

When Rosebank was flooded on Sunday 27 February, we went down to Coopers Creek in the afternoon when the rain stopped so we could see the flooding. It had burst the banks and was extensive.

That evening heavy rain returned and came in steady for a few hours. I went to bed at about 10pm. I was lying in bed listening to the rain. I grew up with tin roofs and heavy rains so I love the sounds and the abundance it symbolises. I was drifting, thinking about healing Country – as I often do – and waterscaping the garden to better harness the rain.

Suddenly, around 11pm, the rain intensity increased. I felt the energy shift and a deep, hollow feeling filled within my belly.

A massive recovery effort followed the evacuations. There was an amazing community response but it appears that agencies involved were very under-resourced and not well prepared for such an extreme event. With the increasing affects of climate change, these flood events could easily become our new normal.

I believe our rivers always tell the truth and we must trust in them and care for them

Storms with heavy rains and floods are powerful elements and have shaped these landscapes for millennia. They are critical ecosystem functions which act to recharge and clean out catchments but they are bad if people clear land, carve up the earth and drain the wetlands, which is what happens to most of the affected areas.

There is growing recognition of the role Indigenous people can play in dealing with extreme events and mitigating impacts on their communities, including cultural and environmental values.

Indigenous communities display great resilience and have longstanding connections to their Country. They hold traditional knowledge and continue customary practices that can assist in planning, response, recovery and resilience to climate change and extreme events.

For millions of years, water has flowed across this place we call Bundjalung Jagun, shaping the landscape and teaching us Lore. There are many traditional stories that teach about the way the ancestors shaped the Country. We also have stories about how people cared for Country by protecting areas and species in places or seasonally or how species moved or were shifted around to maintain kinship and abundance. I believe the 2017 and 2022 floods, and the 2019 and 2022 bushfires, are important stories that our old people would have created stories about and told them for thousands of years.

Many people don’t trust the river as it bursts its banks and flows across the floodplains inundating homes and livelihoods. But I trust the river more today than the day before. I believe our rivers always tell the truth and we must trust in them and care for them.

The river was once healthy and the locals knew it well. The truth is that people are both the problem and the solution, not the river. The only way to learn is from the river, like our old people did when they sat on its high banks of red and green. Now it is so sick, it is hard, if not impossible, to know the abundant beauty it once held. Instead of being celebrated as it was once, it is cursed and treated as a drain.

We need to heal the river so it can teach us good ways to live with it and all that she brings. Healing the river will help heal people too. Hopefully we will all learn and share these connections. We need to trust the river more now than ever before. The river and the weather are telling us the Country is unhealthy, not just here but globally because temperatures, rainfall and other indicators are changing more rapidly and to greater extremes.

The climate is clearly changing. It is because most people have forgotten the Lores of the sky, land and water. Bundjalung Jagun was once a very healthy place for our old people and the ones before them. Our ancestors have lived in abundance here since time began.

To restore the rivers, we need to start with the stories bringing knowledge holders together to share the knowledge of Country to identify important places and values of significance. We need to start a journey and we need to keep walking, talking and flowing together.

  • Oliver Costello is a Bundjalung man who has lived most of his life in the upper catchment of the Wilsons River and tributaries

  • This is an edited excerpt from his personal submission to the NSW flood inquiry report

The floods tell us the river is sick. We should listen to Indigenous knowledge to help Country heal