All the water we cannot see:
Going underground for World Water Day

“Healthy groundwater is the difference between life and death for all sorts of complex ecologies, and not only human ones.”

Lake Pillans in Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow NSW on the way to the State Mine Museum in the distance. Photo courtesy of Bill Humphreys.

SEI Key Researcher Astrida Neimanis asks us to consider the importance of groundwater on World Water Day 2018.

On the day before World Water Day 2018, two things happened: first, the ABC published a story proclaiming that “Adani groundwater plan could permanently drain desert oasis.” Put simply, if Adani’s plans for their Queensland mine go ahead, billions of litres of groundwater needed to keep the ancient Doongmabulla Springs Complex verdant will be diverted for coal; those unique wetlands will likely disappear. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Brisbane, the incredible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth activists of Seed Mob coordinated a National Day of Action as part of their campaign “Don’t Frack the NT!” As is well documented, fracking negatively impacts groundwater ecosystems and poisons aquifers.

Both accounts remind us that although oceans or rivers may be the first things we think of in terms of water and environmental crises, we also need to care for the water we cannot see. Healthy groundwater is the difference between life and death for all sorts of complex ecologies, and not only human ones.

Drawn to stories of these invisible waters, in December 2017 thirty-five artists, academics, scientists, and activists boarded the train at Sydney Central for a three-hour journey to Lithgow. Our destination was Lithgow’s remarkable Mining Museum, but metaphorically, we were “Going Underground”—that is, embarking on a full-day train-and-walkshop to explore matters of concern to “the vertical third dimension.” We wondered: how do the politics, economics and cultures of gas and mineral mining intersect with subterranean ecologies, waters, and us, in both predictable and surprising ways? What practices of knowledge-making (e.g. art, science, academic research) and what modes of relating to each other (e.g. walking, listening, eating, and drawing together, having unexpected conversations with fellow train-travellers, or ex-miners) might expand the perimeters of our research and invite us into new kinds of understanding?

Settling into our purple upholstered seats as we hurtled up into the Blue Mountains, participants were first treated to three train talks on groundwater ecologies by leading experts in their respective fields of research. To begin, Dr. Marilu Melo shared with us her passion for subterranean geographies. As she aptly reminded us, via her research on cenotes and other karst systems, “the underground brings the assumption that it is there to receive all our waste.” Out of sight, out of mind, indeed. Following Marilu, Professor Linda Connor spoke about her work with coal-affected communities in NSW. As Linda revealed, mining is really about water—and who gets to use it. The unmeasurability of aquifers, and their unpredictability, are just two reasons why they are a poor fit with commodification, and why they demand intense consideration in any plan to extract resources from the earth.

Dr Bill Humphreys – photo courtesy of Susan Reid.


Finally, we were lucky to have Dr Bill Humphreys with us to share with us his world-renowned knowledge on stygofauna. Stygofauna—endearingly described by Bill as “blind white cockroaches which get in the way of mines”—are tiny (mostly) crustaceans who live their entire lives underground. These denizens-of-the-dark are vital for keeping groundwater—and thus surface water—healthy. While Australia was long thought to be very poor in terms of stygobiology, in large part thanks to Bill’s research we now know it harbours some of the richest groundwater biodiversity in the world. These critters are very old (they have been here for 5 million years) and very narrowly endemic—which means communities of unrelated species live in close proximity, in very localised ways. Because their environments are largely inaccessible to us, we still do not fully grasp their diversity.

Many stygofauna species are also threatened and endangered—most notably at the hands of extraction. But this concern is complicated by the fact that most of what we know about stygofauna is because of mining. Environmental assessment requirements have engendered a wealth of knowledge about stygofauna that we might not otherwise have. This is just one example of how the things we want to protect and the things we want to protest can be tangled up in complex and uncomfortable ways.

Lithgow State Mine Heritage Park and Museum – photo courtesy of the Author.

Understanding that complexity was one of our walkshop’s key objectives. This complexity emerged in other ways too – such as when one of our generous mining museum guides suddenly realised that the ‘greenies’ he was referring to in his industry stories were also represented in the faces in front of him. Or in the welcome offered by Aunty Helen of the Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation, where she spoke of taking donations from industries her community also disagrees with. Or in the pleasures some queer feminists can get from staging a sort of “beefcake” photoshoot, hardhats and all, with the amazing historic heavy mining vehicles that are part of the museum. Or in the delight of collectively singing both miners’ ballads and protest songs on the train home.

Both/and: this is what we need to think about more, because either/or hasn’t got us very far. I still support a ban on fracking, and I am still against Adani, but I am not against the body who toils underground, and whose labours I benefit from immensely—whether that body be a miner, or a tiny translucent crustacean, performing vital “ecological services” for all of us aboveground, from its home in the not-so-safe harbours of all the water we cannot see.

Special thanks to Dr Louise Boscacci and Dr Perdita Phillips for facilitating artistic interventions during the walkshop. Thanks also for support from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, SEI, and COMPOSTING Feminisms and Environmental Humanities. This event was co-organised with Dr Perdita Phillips as part of the Artspace Artist in Resident program 2017 (funded by Artsource Global City AIR – State Government of WA).

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Sydney. Astrida joined the Gender and Cultural Studies program in 2015 after holding various teaching and research positions at universities in Canada, the UK, and Sweden. She is Associate Editor of the journal Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press), a Key Researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute and co-convenor of the Composting: Feminisms and the Environmental Humanities reading group hosted at the University of Sydney. She is also a founding member and University of Sydney contact faculty for The Seed Box: A MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory (a transnational research consortium based at Linkoping University, Sweden).

World Water Day promotes the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, and commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes targets on protecting the natural environment and reducing pollution. For more information about World Water Day, click here