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Australia's water story

The Australian component of the Water exhibition, 'Australia's water story', was added by the National Museum of Australia. It includes objects from the Museum's National Historical Collection which help examine the use of water over time and the challenges of variable supply and demand. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, with the most variable rainfall.

Water in a dry land

Circular clumps of greyish-green grass on red desert sand.
Spinifex covers vast areas of arid Australia and is well adapted to a dry climate. Photo: K Thiele, Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Australia's water story is one of adapting to the environment, and adapting the environment to us.

Looking at water in nature, there are animals, birds and plants that reflect remarkable adaptation to a dry continent.

Small mammals such as the fat-tailed dunnart and kowari obtain all their water from their food. They don't need to drink, which is just as well as they inhabit some of the most arid parts of Australia.

Somehow pelicans, straw-necked ibis, yellow-billed spoonbills and other waterbirds fly huge distances to find water after rainfall. Floods boost food sources and breeding opportunities for birds. How they find the water is still a mystery.

Plants have adapted with root systems, leaf forms and hard seed cases which combine to give advantages in a dry environment.

Water and the first Australians

Indigenous people have been in Australia for at least 60,000 years, learning how to live in a continent where the fundamental fluid of life can so often be in short supply. From coolamons and canoes to fishtraps, Aboriginal material culture illustrates the triumph of one of the world's oldest civilisations. The exhibition includes a bark canoe and a wooden container used for carrying water, both from the Museum's National Historical Collection.

Significantly, water isn't just a resource. It is part of culture too. One of the most pervasive figures in Indigenous spiritual life is the Rainbow Serpent, strongly associated with rain and a giver of life. Paintings from the Museum's collection showing the Rainbow Serpent and traditional waterholes will go on show alongside a painted boomerang and a pubic cover made from pearl shell. These examples of Indigenous cultural interpretations of water help to demonstrate its significance as more than a physical resource.

Black and white image showing side view of two men, squatting on the ground and holding sections of tree branches above a small tin.
Aboriginal men obtain water from mallee root at Yalata in South Australia, 1981. Photo: National Library of Australia.

Water wonders

European settlers soon discovered that Australia's rainclouds were capricious. So they started developing water resources to overcome drought. Irrigation schemes began in the late 1800s. Food production and standards of living were boosted. One of the most iconic features of Australia's irrigation areas, a water-metering Dethridge wheel, produced in their tens of thousands but now becoming obsolete, is on show in the exhibition.

Metal wheel mounted in concrete casement beside an irrigation channel.
The Dethridge water meter wheel has been produced in thousands and is a symbol of Australian irrigation. Photo: Matthew Higgins.

Snowy Scheme

Dreams of turning rivers inland became reality with the world-renowned Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme, built between 1949 and 1974. Among the array of objects from the Museum's National Historial Collection, visitors can see the scheme model presented to Prime Minister Ben Chifley when the Snowy was inaugurated near Adaminaby in October 1949. There's also a hard hat and gelignite box used during the construction and a tunnelling world-record medal.

Read more about the Museum's Snowy Scheme collection

Water woes

Following all those water wonders Australians now experience water woes. Under the influence of climate change, one of the worst droughts in recorded history prevails. Simultaneously, agricultural use of water is scrutinised like never before. Regulation of rivers through dams, and extractions for irrigation, have had profound impacts.

Changed flow patterns have contributed to declines in native fish and waterbird populations. Wetlands have shrunk and salinity has worsened. The biggest blue-green algae outbreak seen anywhere on earth occurred on the Darling River in 1991, and another one bloomed in 2009 over hundreds of kilometres of the Murray River.

A river bordered on either side by exposed banks and gum trees. Grasses are visible in the foreground.
The Wakool River, a Murray tributary near Swan Hill, has been drought-affected for some years. Photo: Matthew Higgins.

Hope for the future

An orange life jacket, mounted on a mannequin. The sleeveless jacket has a collar, a zip at the front and two black straps around the middle.
Bob Brown's life jacket from the Franklin Dam campaign, now part of the Museum's collection. Photo: Lannon Harley.

Despite the gloom, there are positives, and hope for a healthy water future is a theme of the exhibition. An instrument used near Wagga Wagga to research salinity is displayed, underlining work to combat rising groundwater levels and salt.

A live Murray cod serves to remind visitors what is at stake in our rivers and is accompanied by images of newly constructed fish ladders on dams, and fisheries research initiatives.

Senator Bob Brown's life jacket, worn during his involvement in the Franklin Dam campaign in Tasmania in the 1970s, underlines popular protest against over-development of water resources.

A short film, River Spirit, made by National Museum senior curator Matthew Higgins, encourages visitors to enjoy the beauty of our rivers. Episode one of the TV series Two Men in a Tinnie sums up some of the key issues in the Murray-Darling Basin. Drawings and writings by children from Basin schools provide an insight into their environment.

Exhibition visitors will also be challenged to ponder a range of water issues at the personal level, from the use of dual flush toilets to water as a vote-swinger at elections.

Above all, the exhibition aims to show people that Australia's water future is not simply something imposed on them, but is created by people and the decisions they make now.

Water: H2O=Life is organised by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul (, in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland; The Field Museum, Chicago; Instituto Sangari, São Paulo, Brazil; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; San Diego Natural History Museum; and Science Centre Singapore with PUB Singapore.

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