NSW government to blame for Walgett water crisis

Barwon River downstream of the Walgett Weir has been reduced to drying pools. Photo: @OzHistory

The New South Wales government is robbing communities of precious water by siphoning it off for cotton farms and coal and gas mines. It is doing so as the climate gets warmer and drought becomes more frequent.

These rotten priorities are being played out in Walgett, a town in the state’s north-west that is home to more than 2000 people. Already affected by the long-running drought, Walgett is now suffering from a human-made disaster with residents having to truck in water after the town’s bore system broke down.

In the local Gamilaroi language, Walgett means “a meeting of two rivers”. Right now, the Namoi and Barwon Rivers are running dry.

The NSW government’s response to the latest crisis has been to tell residents to use the foul-tasting, health-endangering bore water.

NSW was declared 100% drought effected in August 2018 and severe water restrictions were put in place in September: no watering of gardens or washing of cars. Since December, with no water to pump into the local weir, Walgett has been forced to use bore water.

That system broke down on January 3, leaving households and businesses without running water for a day.

It was 39oC that day but air conditioners, reliant on water, could not be used.

Shops and pubs closed. Emergency services told residents the situation may not be resolved for days, and the possibility of catastrophic health problems arose.

In the face of a deafening silence from state and federal governments, the community sprang into action: residents from Orange and surrounding towns arrived with vans and trucks loaded with drinking water.

Emergency services fixed the bore water supply on January 4, but the water levels remain dangerously low and the need for drought relief remains.

The bore water, from the Great Artesian Basin, is undrinkable and bad for gardens. Tests in Walgett have shown it to have sodium levels that exceed Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

According to Associate Professor Jacqui Webster, from the George Institute for Global Health, “The sodium levels in the Walgett water supply are at 300 milligrams per litre and the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines are 180 milligrams per litre, so that’s substantially higher”.

While drought is clearly a problem, the slow death of the Namoi and Barwon River system is another. Through a complex system of weirs and dams, NSW Water and the state government are siphoning off water for cotton and other large farms, as well as coal and gas companies. This is leaving towns like Walgett dry.

Gamilaroi activist Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, who is assisting community organising efforts in Walgett, told Green Left Weekly that there is water in the area, but it is being given to big cotton farmers.

Weatherall said: “There are huge farms in this region that take all day to drive from one side to another, and they have water. The irrigation policies of the state government are to blame for Walgett’s water crisis.”

He said the NSW government is prioritising the interests of agribusiness and mining companies, and that it had created the crisis through its water allocation policies.

Locals are angry and are organising residents’ meetings to discuss water security.

They are furious that NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro came to Walgett last October to announce that funding for a fishway had been secured. During his visit, residents told him that Walgett needed greater water security not a fishway, and urged funding to be allocated to heightening the weir.

To date, the government has not committed to doing that.

[Fighting In Resistance Equally (FIRE) is asking for donations and help transport water to Walgett. Donations for the Water for Walgett campaign can be deposited at: Bendigo Bank, SAWC Sydney, BSB: 633 000, Account: 150 758 621. Please write "Walgett" in the description tab. Rachel Evans is the lead candidate in the Socialist Alliance ticket for the NSW Legislative Council.]

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