Bruce Shillingsworth: ‘First Nations people need control over water flow’

Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Some 300 Indigenous and non-Indigenous are travelling through western New South Wales towns that have been badly affected by a lack of water in the rivers, as part of the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival tour.

Organiser Bruce Shillingsworth said on October 1 that First Nations people need to be given back the power to make key decisions about water flow and the rivers.

“First Nations people are rising up to take back control. We are sending a message to the Australian government and greedy corporations that we have had enough and we need water back in the rivers.”

Speaking in Wilcannia, Shillingsworth said: “Aboriginal people need to be at the table where the decisions are made, and we must have the right of veto.

“The bureaucrats have failed because they don’t have local knowledge: they use computer modelling, whereas Aboriginal people have 65,000 years of experience.”

Tour participants have already seen the dry river beds of Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia and it is shocking. People in the towns are desperate and feeling hopeless.

Fleur Thompson, a water activist from Bourke, told the tour that the “water problem” is not because of the drought. “It is the mismanagement of the rivers — the Darling and Barwon — by the bureaucrats and the politicians,” she said.

“The first detrimental changes were made in 2004 when then PM John Howard allowed water to be privatised. 

“There were even worse changes in 2012, when lobbyists for the cotton industry made it possible for the corporate irrigators to take water out of the rivers, even when the water levels were extremely low.

“Even when there was not enough water, they were still allowed to extract water for the next three years. There are 1500 cotton growers registered in Australia and they employ an average of 6 people each.”

Because of the corporate theft of water, small local farmers have been wiped out. Bourke used to grow watermelons, citrus, vegetables grapes, peaches plums and mangoes. That has all gone.

Families are spending $60 a week just on drinking water, Thompson said. Water is the new oil: the rivers are no longer a natural and public facility but a privatised commodity to be sold and traded among big businesses. There will be no more flood plain harvesting of water.

Honorary professor Gill Boehringer, a former dean of Macquarie University Law School, joined the Corroboree Festival tour. He said the ecosystem is breaking down — kangaroos are dying, there are no birds and very few emus.

Shillingsworth said his mother, now 92 years old, “has seen the devastation”.

“We demand all levels of government allow the rivers to flow," he said.

“Strip the water licences from the water thieves. We want stolen water cleaned and returned to the rivers. We want a royal commission into the political interference in the Murray Darling Basin Authority. End the water for mining. We want water for the rivers.”

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