13 November 2022

Hidden life of stormwater drains revealed in new waterways initiative

| Dione David
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People looking in a waterway

Waterways Country is a free Catchment Studio initiative open to anyone interested in how we live with water in our city. Photos: Sammy Hawker, courtesy of Catchment Studio.

We call them stormwater drains or pipes, but a new initiative is set to reshape how we think of Canberra’s urban waterways.

As part of the Design Canberra Festival, Catchment Studio presents Waterways Country – an exploration of the stories of Canberra’s waterways, our relationship with them and the impacts of colonialism on Country.

Waterways Country is a way for artists, scientists, conservationists, educators, wellbeing advocates, cultural producers, water managers, town planners and anyone simply interested in how we live with water in our city to learn about and contribute to a Ngunawal-centred understanding of our waterways.

People walk along a waterway in Canberra

Waterways Country sprang from an earlier Catchment Studio initiative – Following Sullivans: Learning Country.

Through a series of free workshops, a symposium and art installations, participants will come to see that, though encased in concrete and steel, an intricate network of waterways still laces its way around Canberra as it has since time immemorial.

The initiative is sponsored by the Suburban Land Agency, National Museum of Australia, James Fairfax Foundation and Icon Water.

Icon Water general manager customer engagement Davina McCormick said the sponsorship was fitting.

“We share a passion for the health and care of our waterways and while Icon Water does not operate or maintain the stormwater network, we all benefit from focusing on the broader connections to our water catchments that supply our community,” she said.

The symposium will inspire participants to see our stormwater drains in a new light.

“We feel fortunate to be active participants in this important discussion.

“Icon Water expects to learn from the Ngunawal perspectives on water and is dedicated to this unique knowledge exchange.”

Catchment Studio Indigenous water researcher, scientist and wiradyuri woman Kate Harriden said that making the initiative Ngunawal-centred would be critical in any paradigm shift.

“It’s their Country. They’re the people who know the creek’s history; they understand there’s a big difference between how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people look at water,” she said.

“It’s a dichotomy – in Western ways of thinking, water is transactional; in Indigenous ways of thinking, water doesn’t just give life, it has life. It has its own relationships, responsibilities and rights beyond our understanding.

“Things work differently now, we have new paradigms, but we still have people here – the Ngunawal people – who have lived incredibly well with our waterways for tens of thousands of years. Their knowledge needs to be central in any thinking of how we live with water.”

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Catchment Studio curator, designer and producer Kirsten Wehner said waterways were a “live and immediate issue in Canberra at the moment”.

“There’s a lot of interest in recuperating the creeks from stormwater drains,” she said.

“We’re at a transitional point in Canberra’s history, as more developments crop up, we’re questioning what we want to do with our waterways.

“We cannot have that conversation until the layperson has a level of expertise. That’s a key purpose of the symposium.”

Two women talking

Catchment Studio producers Nicola Lambert (left) and Kirsten Wehner.

Kirsten said achieving this objective would require an interactive and engaging program of events.

“We’ve tried to bring the spirit of the walks to the symposium because living with water means more than listening to a talk – it requires you to tap into your emotions, heart, body, head and voice,” she said.

“For example, we have what we call flow sessions where people will collaborate in creating maps of waterways as they know them, using their collective knowledge, memories and experiences.

“In another session we will all be out in the National Museum of Australia’s garden and we’ll be moving. We’ll be engaging with water imaginatively with our bodies and all our senses.”

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Catchment Studio is an independent, non-profit creative platform that collaborates with traditional custodians, artists, scientists and community organisations to create inspiring experiences that change how people connect with urban waterways.

“When we think of most urban waterways in Canberra, they’re commonly known as stormwater drains or pipes. This isn’t a great way of thinking or living with water. It creates problems for waterways and the species that should be living in our waterways,” Kirsten said.

“Our waterways have enormous potential to be places where people spend time, connect with nature and live sympathetically with the natural world. They’re not something to be controlled, domesticated and sent underground, but are a vital part of what could be a liveable city for us and other living species.

“At the symposium we’re going to draw these ideas out into bigger conversations.”

Waterways Country symposium sessions run on Monday 14, Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 of November from 10 am to 3 pm at the National Museum of Australia.

To learn more visit the Design Canberra Festival page or book symposium sessions here.

Spellings and capitalisations used in this article reflect the directions of Traditional Custodians and First Nations participants guiding the Following Sullivans, Learning Country and Waterways Country programs.

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