The Murray-Darling river system is the lifeblood of Australian agriculture, but it is now in serious crisis.
The river system is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, and with mass fish deaths in the headlines and farmers struggling to survive, the water crisis is deepening.
But the current crisis has long-term roots in a river system that for years has been controlled by big business and corrupt governments.
In early July, we travelled to the far-western NSW towns of Broken Hill and Menindee and spoke to a number of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous locals who are at the forefront of the fight to save the rivers.
In the historic mining city of Broken Hill, with its rich tradition of union and working-class struggle over more than a century, we spoke to Barbara and Larry Webster, who have been heavily involved in the campaign to save the Darling River, known by its Aboriginal name of Baaka (or Barka).
Barbara Webster told Green Left Weekly: “The key point is if we are going to save the rivers, local people, especially Aboriginal elders, who understand the real situation, need to be the key force in making the decisions on its future. We have to return the water to the rivers.
“We must stop the mass extractions of water from the Barwon-Darling river system. We need to stop the NSW government's system of ‘arrears’, by which when water is available, irrigators can draw down four times their allocation — their current allocation, plus three previous years ‘owing’.
“Some of the water is being stolen, but much of it is being harvested quite ‘legally’. Water stored in big dams on the flood plains is being held back from the river system.
“The flood plains are part of the river system: we need to ensure water is not stolen but returned to the rivers, so they are not effectively just a stormwater drain as the Darling is now.
“[Former National Party leader] Barnaby Joyce is responsible for changing the rules so that properties could pump more water at a lower river level.
“Increasing amounts of agricultural pollutants are going into the rivers. We support better farming practices, especially where a number of crops, including cotton, can be grown with much less irrigation, even in the middle of a record drought.
“For example, dryland farming of cotton uses almost no irrigation, as at Roma, Queensland. It makes less profit than irrigated cotton, like at Cubbie Station, but still makes a substantial profit.
“In any case, Cubbie Station, despite its bad reputation, is not the major problem now. In NSW, many large dams have been built for cotton plantations since 2000.
“The problem of water theft and misuse is now centred in NSW, especially with the lack of proper metering of water usage, and the construction of big dams in this state. Big business is responsible for gaming the system, with the complicity of governments.
“Small irrigators are going broke because of big companies' manipulation of the market for water allocation. These corporations are making huge profits out of a corrupt water market.
“Meanwhile, small irrigators, such as orchardists, are committing suicide. Farmers going broke is a major social consequence of the water crisis we face.”
Baakandji elder Larry Webster is a traditional owner of the Barka. He gave this testimony to the Citizens’ Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes, in Broken Hill, in March: “The Darling River is dying. It has happened remarkably quickly compared to the length of her life — progressively over the past 25 or so years, with reprieves here and there.
“The river is now almost empty. Some weir pools remain, with poor water quality, not fit to wash in, let alone to drink — for humans or animals.
“The Menindee Lakes were drained at a very rapid rate during a drought in the catchment for no good reason — except to give the current Coalition government an excuse to build a new pipeline to Broken Hill from Wentworth on the Murray River.
“This allowed them an extra 70 gigalitres of water to sell every year to upstream irrigators. It was a plan by Cotton Australia, who had been pushing for this result for two decades.
“[They] have no compassion or respect for us in the outback, or even the smaller family farmers, who rely on irrigation or river water for food or stock, and river townships. They have no compassion for the whole Murray system either, as that is reliant on a healthy Darling River to work properly.
“Many big breeding native fish have died, as have the smaller fish for their food. There's toxic blue-green algae water in the puddles, (which once were deep holes), that kangaroos are left to drink.
“Many birds have either died or moved on. The river goannas, turtles, mussels, in the mud, have possibly died as the mud has dried out. We don't know.
“The river people, both First Nations and Europeans, are now suffering chronic stress. We all know that leads to depression, chronic illnesses and suicide.
“Those that have been using river water, brushing their teeth in the shower — no one drinks it now — may have unknowingly given themselves serious chronic diseases, such as motor neurone disease, which exists in clusters around toxic blue-green algae waters — as is the case in Menindee.
“Give us our river back, and together we may be able to restore the Baaka and all of its tributary rivers back to health, with Mother Nature.
“This would enable a future for all of our grandkids.”