NSW rivers crisis: A ‘perfect storm’ of drought, theft and corruption

Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival tour. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

“The problem is mismanagement of the Barwon-Darling rivers” activist Fleur Thompson told the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival bus tour, as it passed through the western New South Wales town of Bourke on September 30.

“The federal and state governments could step in anytime and fix it, but they don’t and won’t. To do that the governments would have to admit fault.”

Between September 28 and October 4, some 300 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people travelled through western NSW towns that have been badly affected by a lack of water in the rivers, as part of the corroboree organised by First Nations activist and artist Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth.

Discussing the causes of the lack of water, Thompson explained: “There is a water crisis. It is a perfect storm, which includes drought, water theft, mismanagement, political interference and corruption.

“It came about because the rules about irrigation and allocation of water in the river were changed by governments in 2012.”

According to Thompson, in 2012 Bourke cotton lobbyist Ian Cole went to see Katrina Hodgkinson, who, at the time, was NSW National Party MP for Cootamundra and Minister for Primary Industry, and convinced her to change the rules so that larger pumps could be used to take water out of the river. This was despite the fact that water levels in the Baaka [the Aboriginal name for the Darling River] were extremely low.

“The conditions changed, upgrading Class A licences to extract more water than ever before.”

If cotton growers didn’t reach their legal allocation, because there was no water, they could take their allocation for the next three years above that particular year’s allocation. This means the allocation is carried over for the next three years. Protections of environmental water, particularly low flows, were dropped.

The new rules were implemented in 2013. At the time, nobody realised the full implication of the changes. By 2015, the lower Darling River was suffering very badly.

“After the 2016 Queensland flood in June, no water reached Bourke. It was all harvested by cotton farmers before it even got to Collarenebri, 300 kilometres upstream from Bourke.

“The Bourke River tourist boat is sitting on sand.”

Recently, thousands of pipis, a fresh water mollusc, were found dead in the river. Pipis are a delicacy, with some growing up to 10 centimetres in size. “It was a stinking mess,” Thompson said.

Grand-scale corruption

Bourke used to have a thriving farming industry, growing plums, peaches, oranges, mangoes, red and green grapes and watermelon. That has all gone.

Thompson said: “The small farmers have no power. They can’t match the lobbying and donations by the big cotton corporations to the National Party. This is corruption on a grand scale.”

Companies are able to trade water through investment companies. There is no stipulation that traders have to be farmers. This has meant that water has been turned into a commodity so it can be sold on the stock exchange.

Water is extracted by the big agricultural corporations further up the river, who have built huge dams, while nothing is left for small irrigators in the lower part of the Baaka river.

A well-funded cotton growers’ lobbying campaign killed off Australia’s wool industry, with former Coalition Prime Minister John Howard privatising water way back in 2004. Subsequent Coalition and Labor governments have gone along with this.

Queensland corporations are producing a double crop of cotton each year. Two hundred thousand hectares of cotton was grown in the 2018-19 season — on the driest continent on Earth. There are 1500 registered cotton growers in Australia, with each farm employing, on average, six workers.

Thompson said: “The cotton crop, worth $1.3 billion last year, is mostly exported, processed overseas, mixed with cotton from other countries and returned as clothing to be sold in Australian shops. There is no processing of cotton in Australia.”

Four big corporations grow cotton in Queensland and NSW. They have access to 80% of the allocated water from the Baaka.

They are: Webster Ltd (recently bought out by a Canadian pension fund for $854 million), brothers Ron and Peter Harris of Ravensworth Agricultural Company (which owns 500,000 hectares around Bourke), Macquarie Group Investment Bank and one other company.

Chris Corrigan, who unsuccessfully tried to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia on behalf of Patricks Stevedore, is the CEO of Webster. Meanwhile, Peter Harris is still before the courts for tampering with water pumps.

Running out of water

The towns of Bourke and Walgett have been without running water since January 24. They have had to rely on bore water, which has a high level of salts and electrolytes and is toxic to drink.

Thompson had to resort to paying $60 a week to buy drinking water for three people. For a family of five, drinking water can cost about $100 a week.

Thompson is fighting a huge battle with little support, as few of the townspeople realise what is happening or are too afraid to speak out.

There is a group of Farmers for Climate Change in Bourke, but they are up against vested interests.

These days, Cole is a councillor on Bourke Shire Council and secretary of the Darling River Food and Fibre, which represents cotton growers and irrigators in the Bourke region. He is also general manager of the town’s radio station and only newspaper.

Unlike the Brewarrina, Wilcannia and Menindee councils, Bourke council did not make a submission to the Natural Resources Commission independent review of the Barwon Darling Water Sharing Plan.

The local Barkinje people, a key stakeholder in the Baaka, have witnessed its demise over the past 200 years, but their voices have not been heard. Rather, they are left out of decisions made in committee rooms by government bureaucrats and investment companies.

However, under pressure, the government has recently legislated and advertised for an Indigenous representative on the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

The community’s demands are: no more dams and no more flood plain harvesting of water.

Communities along the river also need water tanks to be paid for by the governments. They need water filters as the water is contaminated with pesticides from the cotton growers.

They believe the stolen water has to be returned and water has to flow freely in the river if Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are to survive.

The community is also calling for a ban on the speculation and trading of water and an end to the transference of water licences.

[Coral Wynter participated in the Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival bus tour and is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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