“We have to rely on bottled water to bathe our babies. There is no fresh water to drink,” explained local Aboriginal elder Brendan Adams. “The bore water is heavy and a dark colour. Our skin is dry, our hair is like straw.
“We are all living in Third World conditions.”
Adams, who works for Radio Wilcannia, was addressing the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival Bus Tour that travelled through north-western New South Wales in early October to bear witness to some of the state’s driest rivers and bring back solutions for the water crisis affecting local communities.
Adams told us: “We are facing a lot of trauma. In Wilcannia, we are facing high rates of depression and suicide. The average life expectancy is now 38 years. It used to be 56 and a half years. For white Australia, it is some 84 years.
“Add to this, the dispossession of our land, intergenerational trauma and genocide. We are really suffering.”
Adams explained that the lack of water has had many flow-on effects on the community: “It has stopped our women’s football team playing, as we can’t hose down the oval. The ground is so hard that we can’t play football.
“Football is important for the wellbeing of our youth. They have taken away our health, our culture, our dignity and our community.
“We used to have 1000 people in Wilcannia and now it is only half that. They are stealing our towns off us again.”
In Ivanhoe, a town 180 kilometres south-east of Wilcannia, animals are dying due to the drought. “I saw a kangaroo die in front of us,” Adams said. “There were thousands of bugs crawling over it. It was being eaten alive.
“The emus are dying in their thousands on the lake. Enough is enough.
“We, the Traditional Owners, need help as the government isn’t going to stop.
“The big banks now control our water. We have to stop water trading and put water back into the commons.
When communities tried raising this with politicians, Adams said they were ignored. “People in Wilcannia paid $1000 each to hire a bus to go and talk to the politicians in Canberra.
“All we found was closed doors.”
In March this year, former Macquarie University Law School dean Gill Boehringer organised a tribunal of three lawyers to listen to people’s stories from eight towns in western NSW, including Walgett, Brewarrina and Bourke.
Boehringer explained that one of the most telling quotes recorded during the tribunal was: “They used to take us out and shoot us. Now they kill us with their policies.”
Other residents said they were “sick and tired of being consulted, as they only do it to get people off their backs and tick a box. The decisions have already been made in the cities”.
There is a high rate of motor neurone disease in the region, which people believe is a result of the blue green algae in the rivers. Scientists recently established a link with the algae, but the NSW Health Department continues to deny any relationship. It is difficult to prove cause and effect though, and no investigation will be funded.
Boehringer believes western NSW is facing “an emergency situation”.
“There is theft of water ... The big corporations and large-scale irrigators have been subsidised by taxpayers’ money to build roads, dams and levees to prevent water getting to the rivers from the flood plains, so it can be used for irrigation...
“The governments want the small towns to disappear.”
Boehringer continued: “There are mental health problems, kidney disease and cancers.
“The ecosystem is breaking down. The kangaroos are dying, the birds have gone and there are few emus.
“The situation is even more desperate now, because in March we couldn’t see some of the fish traps at Brewarrina. Now they are exposed.
“You can’t swim in the river; the groundwater is salty. The run-off coming from the cotton farmers contains fertilisers and pesticides. The single cropping of cotton for decades will destroy the farmland.”
Caring for country
“We have to demand that Aboriginal people be at the table when decisions are made. They should have a vote with a veto,” Boehringer said.
“The technocrats have failed because they don’t have any local knowledge, they just use computer modelling and are obsessed with ‘growth’ and ‘economic development’.
“Aboriginal people have 65,000 years of experience and knowledge of caring for country.”
Muruwari and Budjiti man Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth, who organised the corroboree bus tour, explained: “We are here to get the waters back to our river.
“Many First Nations people live along the Baaka [Darling River]. This is our land, our sovereignty has not been ceded.
“Our First Nations people are going to manage our rivers. We are sending a message to the Australian government that corporate greed will not be tolerated.
“First Nations people have suffered enough. This is a form of genocide.
“Our voices have to be heard, not just here but across the world. It’s time we made a stand in solidarity against the big irrigators.
“We will do whatever it takes to make the governments listen.”