Police closed off Wilcannia Bridge, where the Barrier Highway crosses the Darling (Baaka) River, on March 13 following calls by local activists to blockade it in protest at water theft, cultural oppression and ecocide.
About 100 activists peacefully occupied the bridge throughout the day to raise awareness about the plight of the Murray-Darling Basin, until police broke up the occupation at about 2pm and arrested 6 protesters, The Vanishing Rivers' Mark Merritt told Green Left.
Aboriginal elders and Menindee residents Beryl Carmichael and Barry Stone, along with anti-coal seam gas campaigner Ian Sutton, initiated the protest.
In an open letter to WaterNSW, the three explained “stronger action [is needed] if we are to avoid the death of the Riverland and wineries in South Australia, the loss of sustainable agriculture in Victoria and a complete rural economic collapse in NSW.”
“If the Menindee Lakes remain dry, then western NSW will die and there will be no future for rural communities, farmers or the Barkandji and Ngiyeempaa Traditional Owners.”
The Darling River has been largely bone dry for the past few years. As a result, drinking water, bought with funds raised by grassroots activists, has had to be trucked in to local communities in far western New South Wales.
Outlining their demands, the three wrote: “Our primary demand is that water must be taken off the market and water trading ended in Australia. Water is not a commodity.
“We also demand an immediate embargo on river diversion, flood-plain harvesting and the pumping of rivers by irrigators upstream.
“We must allow the current flood waters to fill the Menindee Lakes and to provide a proper flush for the Darling Baaka, with full connectivity all the way to the junction with the Murray.”
Wilcannia Bridge has been the site of four protests in the past three years, though this was the first time police facilitated the bridge’s closure.
Solidarity actions also took place in Parramatta, Sydney, Newcastle, Chinchilla, Bourke and Menindee.
At the Parramatta action, protesters delivered the open letter to WaterNSW along with an excerpt from the 150-page report produced by the Australian Peoples Tribunal Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River & Menindee Lakes.
The Tribunal conducted interviews and received more than 100 submissions from people living along the Darling River in Mildura/Buronga, Wentworth, Broken Hill, Menindee, Wilcannia, Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett, all of whom are bearing the consequences of water commodification, water-trading and zero flows in the river.