Applying science and Indigenous knowledge to remote billabong water quality assessment

[by Tony Jupp]


Ngukurr Yangbala Rangers Pancey Wurramara, Joanita Gumbula and Kimberley Rogers testing water quality at Ngudjuli billabong in southeast Arnhem Land, NT © Shaina Russell/Macquarie University. Image: supplied

Fresh research by scientists from Macquarie University working with Ngukurr’s Yangbala Rangers and funded by The Nature Conservancy, has demonstrated the biological reasons why billabong water is at times undrinkable for remote Indigenous communities in southeast Arnhem Land.

“The results of our three years of research reveals that the decisions local people make about when it is and isn’t safe to drink billabong water are well founded”, said lead scientist on the study, Shaina Russell. “Ngukurr elders know that sometimes drinking the water will make them sick. Our research was able to show it is at these times that water is contaminated with microscopic pathogens, likely from buffalos and pigs, that can cause gastrointestinal disease.”

The Yangbala Rangers were set up to support more than 200 young people, mostly women, of southeast Arnhem Land to engage in on-country land management work and cross-cultural learning. They often work alongside the Yugul Mangi Rangers and engage with the Wuyagiba Regional Study Hub.

The research, funded by Amy Batchelor and Brad Feld through The Nature Conservancy, also included extensive interviews with Senior Knowledge Holders from the remote community of Ngukurr in southeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. They know that at certain times, such as the late dry season, the water in their billabongs is not safe to drink based on visual indicators, their seasonal knowledge and intuition. 

“Our billabongs are really important for drinking water and collecting bush foods like water lilies and fish,” said Yangbala Ranger Melissa Wurramarrba.


“My grandmother once enjoyed fishing in our billabongs but it’s not always safe anymore. Our community wanted to learn more about the impacts of feral animals on our billabongs, especially on drinking water, so we might be able to fix it.”

The research also included extensive water testing which demonstrated that during certain periods like the late dry season, water in the billabongs contained the pathogen Giardia duodenalis which can cause gastrointestinal diseases in people. This period coincides with increased use of the billabongs by feral pests like buffalo and pigs.

Having extended the understanding of when and why the water becomes unsafe, the Ngukurr Yangbala Rangers hope that changes can be made to improve the billabongs’ water quality.


“In the late dry season it isn’t safe for our communities because of buffalos, pigs and horses. That’s their time to ruin the billabongs, through wallowing and guna (fouling)”, said Yangbala Ranger Santa Louise Morris.


“Hopefully we can do more fencing of some billabongs to keep pests out and control pig and buffalo numbers more.”

“Apart from understanding more about billabong water quality, the study has had a range of other benefits including strengthening intergenerational knowledge transfer within the Ngukurr community and further education for many of the Yangbala Rangers,” concluded Russell.


“For example, both Melissa and Santa are now studying undergraduate degrees at Macquarie University.”

"By combining freshwater science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, we can better understand the impacts of feral species on billabongs and other waterways in northern Australia” said Dr James Fitzsimons, Director of Conservation at The Nature Conservancy. “This will inform improved management of these important freshwater systems.”


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