At its peak, Martuwarra becomes one of the most powerful riverine systems in the world. Photo Jackson Gallagher


At the end of each calendar year, as both heat and air pressure increase dramatically, the northern monsoon builds and breaks open to drop its rains through the central Kimberley.


Here, in this vast and sparsely populated region of Western Australia, these waters rush first out of the range country, into gallery forests of melaleuca and pandanus.


Building in momentum, the deluge passes through gorge and canyon, swamp, and marsh, until it reaches the King Sound, the gateway to the Indian Ocean, seven hundred kilometres downstream.


This is Martuwarra. Known more broadly by its modern, colonial title, the Fitzroy River, Martuwarra is the most powerful River in Western Australia and one of the most pristine, free-flowing riverine systems on Earth.

Like fingers snaking through Country, the tributaries of Martuwarra stretch over an area the size of Tasmania. Photo Jackson Gallagher

Professor Anne Poelina, Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Owner, is Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC), an alliance of representatives from Indigenous Nations connected to the River. A community leader, human and earth rights advocate, filmmaker, water leader and academic researcher, Professor Poelina hails from the lower section of the catchment.

“Martuwarra, Fitzroy River, is not only a geological feature or a resource; it must have the right to live and flow,” she said. “It is the basis of our spirituality, our Law, our home, our ancestral estate.”

“The River is a living ancestor serpent and sacred giver of a holistic system of law, leadership and governance, which we are born into and bound by a law of obligation to nurture and protect.”

For those unfamiliar with just how important Martuwarra is to the Kimberley and the continent more broadly, one need only look at its cultural significance. Native Title recognition is now held along the entire length of the River, the first time land title rights have been held across an entire catchment area in Australia. Globally unique, the River system was listed in 2011 as National Heritage for its environmental and cultural values. It is also the largest registered Aboriginal cultural heritage site in Western Australia.

In the 1990s, a coalition of concerned people, headed by Traditional Owners, saved Dimond Gorge from being dammed for the cotton industry. Photo Ian Bool. Professor Anne Poelina: community leader, human and earth rights advocate, filmmaker, water leader, academic researcher and Chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council. Photo supplied

And then there is the ecology.

The catchment spans nearly one hundred thousand square kilometres – an area roughly the same size of Tasmania and surrounded on all sides by ancient geological formations. These rocky ranges and vast gorges are made up of some of the oldest rocks in the world, home to riparian and floodplain vegetation which support several of the most endangered bird species in Australia, including the purple-crowned fairy wren.

Perhaps most famously, the system is widely considered the last stronghold of the freshwater sawfish (Pristis pristis). This elusive creature, with its distinctive toothed rostrum, or nose, has been recognised as the world’s most “evolutionarily distinct and greatly endangered” species.

The continued existence of the freshwater sawfish in the Martuwarra catchment is due to the low level of human disturbance compared to other Rivers around the world. The authors of a 2019 study on sawfish recommended that any “further anthropogenic disturbance [to the Fitzroy River] should be minimised to maintain what is still a relatively pristine habitat.”

Such is the importance of the system that in 2016, Indigenous leaders came together on the banks of Martuwarra to produce the Fitzroy River Declaration, a document that established the fundamental principles and philosophy for sustainable River and catchment management.

In response, over one hundred leading ecologists, hydro-geographers and other scientists signed the Fitzroy River Science Statement urging the government to protect the River system and to uphold the principles of the Declaration.

But despite Martuwarra’s unwavering connection with Indigenous people and its recognition by experts across scientific disciplines, this unique system is not free from competing interests and threats.

On the contrary, the River now faces development proposals on an industrial scale throughout the watershed: from agriculture, mining, and the extraction of water and shale gas. Although the WA state government pledged there will be no dams along the Fitzroy or its tributaries – something that has been proposed repeatedly over the last 50 years – it is currently assessing the feasibility of allowing billions of litres of surface water to be taken out of the River each year through irrigation development, mainly to grow fodder for the cattle industry.

While the debate rages over water extraction in the catchment, there are other questions being raised about hydraulic fracture stimulation in the region. Commonly known as ‘fracking’, this extractive process involves injecting sand, water, and chemicals into a drilled well to crack rocky substrate and free fossil fuel gas from deep underground. Despite fracking’s links to increased seismic activity and the potential contamination of groundwater supplies, the Martuwarra catchment has been opened up to this very industry.

Sunset on Martuwarra. Photo Donny Imberlong

Now comes proposals for mining at the very source of Martuwarra. The Phillips Range, the headwaters of the catchment, is being opened up to mining tenements in areas where few ecological or cultural heritage surveys have been conducted.

Despite its importance, its uniqueness, and the pressing threats to its culture and ecology, few in Australia knew much at all about Martuwarra until the dawning weeks of 2023, when a low-pressure system built up around the central Kimberley.

Such storms are not uncommon during the monsoon, but this cell hung in the region for days and dropped a huge amount of rain, throwing all records out in what was described by the WA government as the “worst flood” in the state’s recorded history.

For weeks, communities were cut off with wildlife and livestock devastated by the deluge. The Kimberley itself became, as some in the media dubbed it, “an island within an island,” with submerged and, in some areas, completely destroyed roads isolating it even further from the rest of the country.

Much has been written about the flood, this “once in a century” event. How the River peaked at over 15 metres, engulfing the bridge at the town of Fitzroy Crossing. How the floodplain bloated to 50km wide. And how, at one point, 60,000 cubic metres of water ran through the system every second, resulting in the inevitable comparison of east coasters – for context sake – of how quickly this flow could fill Sydney Harbour. The answer? A mind boggling two-and-a-half hours.

But perhaps one figure, provided by the Bureau of Meteorology, captured just how awe inspiring this event really was. As the River in flood peaked, more water passed down that system in 24 hours than the city of Perth – a population of two million people – uses in 20 years.

Now over six months from the floods, the region continues to recover, and important questions are being raised about how to address land, water, and food security in the coming years. “The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted we will see more intense rain over shorter periods,” said Professor Poelina. “Despite the recovery phase following the recent floods, it is impossible to imagine how we can recover without a total reset. It cannot be business as usual.”

“We believe Martuwarra is a vital life support system for our nation and to the world,” continued Professor Poelina, highlighting the recent launch of the Martuwarra River Keepers, a new workforce of traditional custodians.

Using Indigenous science, the Martuwarra River Keepers is an independent and community-led initiative which aims to “repair and regenerate Martuwarra and defend against water inequity, fracking and climate change.”

“Investing in our young leaders demonstrates we are ensuring their right to inter-generational equity and their due inheritance in the continuation of culture and Country. These young leaders are passionate about sharing their stories and the Martuwarra with the world.”

Find out more about the Martuwarra River Keepers here.

At its peak, Martuwarra becomes one of the most powerful riverine systems in the world. Photo Jackson Gallagher


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