A bucket of dead fish was emptied outside NSW minister for regional water Niall Blair’s office on February 7 as part of a protest to demand swift action on the water crisis affecting regional communities. The protest was organised by Fighting In Resistance Equally (FIRE).
Millions of fish have died in the Darling River system, Lake Menindee, Lake Keepit and Murrumbidgee River in the past month as a result of government mismanagement and corporate greed.
Gamilaraay man Raymond Weatherall, who is spearheading the “Water for Walgett” campaign, said that the group was taking action “because we know the lack of clean water in communities and the death of the fish is not simply a result of drought and heat.”
“State governments have created this environmental state of emergency.”
Indigenous communities are concerned that regional towns in the Murdi Paaki (River People) region, including Walgett and Wilcannia, are having water stolen from them and diverted to big irrigators.
Walgett was left without running water after the Barwon and Namoi Rivers ran dry in January. The town is being forced to survive on bore water.
Activists from outside the township have been delivering fresh water to communities.
Wilcannia’s rivers are also dangerously dry and the town of Collarenebri is close to being left without water.
Wangkumarra man Albert Hartnett, who grew up in Bourke, told the protest that the water crisis was a result of colonialist policies that prioritise big irrigators — many of whom are also big donors to Blair’s Nationals party.
“As a young fella growing up in Bourke, I could feel the water being taken away from the river. The whole ecosystem gradually began to fall apart.
“There was a time when we would be catching yellow belly, catfish, black bream, mussels, Murray cod, yabbies and other species.
“Over time they all began to disappear ... and now the water’s just not there. Not for drinking, not for washing, nor medical use or anything else.
“The Baarka [Darling River] is dead and we need to resuscitate her.”
Muruwari and Budjiti man Bruce Shillingsworth said: “The river is our blood. Without blood we can’t survive.”
Speakers from the Nature Conservation Council, the Socialist Alliance, The Greens, NSW Labor and South Australia’s Centre Alliance pledged their support for action.
After a brief stand-off with the police, Hartnett was allowed into Blair’s office to deliver hundreds of petitions calling on the regional water minister to take immediate action.
Activists want a new representative body of sovereign tribes around the Murray Darling region to be formed to restore the rivers and prioritise the communities’ needs over those of big irrigators.