Rivers and wetlands are powerful imaginative and physical presences for Australians, and they demand our urgent attention if we are to prevent their ecological collapse, with serious attendant social, cultural and economic consequences.

A major challenge facing Australia is managing the many different ways of understanding and using water that exist in the community. Whose knowledge’s count? Whose voices are heard? Can different positions on water use be reconciled? The complex relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice is one which must be explored through an interdisciplinary lens, as traditional discipline boundaries are proving obstacles to progressive research in this area. The recent adoption of ‘An Environmentally Sustainable Australia’ as a national research priority has major implications for the humanities and social sciences, and interdisciplinary work is now crucial in the pursuit of this goal. In the words of the National Academy of the Humanities:

“What constitutes environmental sustainability is ultimately a social and political question as much as a scientific one. In fact, moving towards an environmentally sustainable Australia will depend not only on our knowledge of ecosystems and resources but even more on our ability to initiate, advocate and absorb radical shifts in desired lifestyles, values and technology.”

At present, there is a patchwork of concern, ignorance and indifference to many of the problems facing the Murray and our other waterways, and a general failure of improvement strategies to achieve consensus. The complexity of federal /state / local water governance structures is partly responsible; also problematic is the perception of our current situation as a recent environmental issue, rather than as a continuing social problem dating back to settlement. The science behind the problems facing our rivers is well-established; strategies are now required to ensure that state and federal water management initiatives are successfully negotiated at the regional and local level in ways that take account of different ways of knowing and using water. We must both learn to deal with difference, and unlearn the indifference that prevents concerted whole of government and community action. In turn, it is desirable that successful local strategies be examined with an eye to implementing them elsewhere.

The workshop will draw together researchers from the social sciences and humanities with a range of water management experts in order to address the issues faced in the management of inland waterways in Australia, particularly the Murray-Darling Basin, and formulate new ways to approach and resolve issues of ‘Water Justice’ and begin the development of a framework in which researchers in the humanities, visual arts, social sciences and physical sciences can collaborate on these issues.