Menindee Aboriginal resident: ‘Water is the source of our survival’

Sunset Strip residents Peter Edwards, Barry Stone and Virgean Wilson at Menindee. Photo: Coral Wynter

Virgean Wilson is an Aboriginal woman who has been campaigning to save the rivers and the Menindee Lakes. She was born and raised in Wilcannia and now lives in the unique former lake "resort" of Sunset Strip — a settlement of about 150 houses on the banks of Lake Menindee, the largest of the Menindee Lakes.

In the yards of many of the houses are boats on trailers, testament to the boating, fishing and swimming activities that were previously commonplace at Sunset Strip — before the lake was finally emptied a couple of years ago.

Sunset Strip, about 20 kilometres from Menindee township, is a symbol of the crisis of the rivers that has been created, partly by drought and climate change, but more significantly by corruption of the water allocation system from the Darling River by big agricultural corporations, overseen by right-wing Coalition governments over a number of years.

Wilson told us: "Many people don't fully understand the depth of the water crisis we are facing in this area and elsewhere in the state.

“Water is the main source of our survival. But the water here is undrinkable. Here, in the 21st century, we are forced to drink bottled water, bought in big boxes.

"Menindee is well-known as a community of lakes. But we no longer have flowing water. Governments have sold us out. This is criminal. But who is being made accountable?

"The water has been sold off to private organisations. And the grassroots people have to live with the consequences.

"Our [First Nations] people here won a Native Title determination in 2015. But it doesn't give us rights to our water.

"Land councils are the main bodies to provide us with an Aboriginal voice. But we are not hearing enough from them.

"We need to give the river a voice itself as a living organism.

"This is an issue for all disadvantaged people in the community, and for Aboriginal people in particular. Because there is now no free-flowing water, we have no financial base.

"This community of Menindee is widely known for its lakes. Now they are mostly dry.

“Our little village cares about everyone in the community. When there was water in the lake, there were social events every weekend. Our people out here demand the return of our water.

"Cubbie Station and the other large cotton farms are partly at fault as the largest levy-holders. But other big farms and the government are finally responsible.

"The orchards around Menindee are devastated. The drought and lack of water has destroyed the small farms and the grapevines.

"The social consequences of the water crisis are toxic water, with reliance on filtered water, which is undrinkable and causes health problems.

"But the government is not listening to us. We need drastic action now, to save our river before it is too late."

Long-term Sunset Strip resident Barry Stone has campaigned to save the Darling River for many years. We spoke to him at his house on the banks of Lake Menindee.

"Sunset Strip home-owners pay the highest rates in Darling Shire," he said. "We are paying for water we cannot drink. We are not supposed to shower in it either.

"The whole water issue is a farce. The cotton industry is a major problem. It was after the cotton industry really got going in the mid-1970s that the quality of the water deteriorated, with the pesticides and other pollution.

"A federal royal commission into the water crisis is now a must. We need to see radical changes made. No big company should be able to take control of the water: it belongs to the Aboriginal people and the local communities.

"I would like to see an Aboriginal ranger program started to monitor the rivers. They could then look after their own lands, the fish, the eagles, the emus, the kangaroos and the birds. Currently, all the bush tucker has been made toxic by pesticides.

"We need all toxic material to be banned from the rivers. As a result of the pollution, and the loss of water, the orchardists and agricultural industries around Menindee have been ruined.

"The previously existing fishing industry has gone. There has been a major loss of jobs for fruit-pickers.

"Federal and state governments just pass the buck. Water licences are bought and sold on the market. This should be banned.

"Some years ago, I spoke to a man whose livelihood had been ruined by the water crisis. That experience turned me from a spectator into an activist in support of the rivers.

"We organised to shut the bridge over the Darling River at Wilcannia in June 2016 and on another occasion. We also organised a rally in Canberra to demand action on the water crisis.

"This is an ongoing, continuous fight. We need to keep talking about this issue, and maintaining the campaign until the rivers are saved."