The Silencing of the River’s Song

by Julie Macken

I have been to countless environmental meetings in my life and have heard horrific stories of ecosystems destroyed and greed annihilating entire communities. They are all tragedies. But nothing prepared me for what I heard last Monday night.

The Sydney Alliance and the Nature Conservation Council hosted First Nations leaders and farmers from the Baaka/Darling River and Menindee Lakes region to speak about what was happening to their beloved river the organising to protect water. Uncle Badger Bates, Barkandji Elder from Wilcannia, Derek Hardman, CEO Barkandji Native Title group from Wilcannia, Don Stewart, Treasurer, Darling River Action Group, Julie McClure, Grazier from Kallara Station and Tilpa pub owner and Rob McBride, pastoralist from Tolarno Station all told of their Baaka/Darling slowly dying before their eyes.

We all witnessed what this looks like last summer. The millions of fish, some as old as 150 years, all gasping and dying for breath as their bodies floated to the surface of a once vibrant river. We all looked on as young kids and old men tried to save as many fish as possible – as much so their genetic memory will survive for future generations. We all watched this calamaity and perhaps imagined something would be done and someone would step up to ensure it never happened again.

We’re still waiting and so are the First Nations communities and farmers that call the river their home.

This may seem like an absurd thing to be worried about as NSW experiences a once-in-one-hundred-year flooding event. Surely all this water will flush the river clean and recharge the country? Not if recent history is any guide.

Three months ago, after good rain fell rather than giving back to support the ecology of the river and the Sacred Places the Baakanji First Nations people care for, rather than allowing farmers or river communities recharge their dry and drought-impacted lands with water, the Water Minister Melinda Pavey and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment advised irrigators in the Barwon River catchment, including the Gwydir and Namoi sub-catchments, that there is ample water and to take what they want.

Nature Conservation Council of NSW Chief Executive Chris Gambian said the Minister should not let big irrigators at the top of the system syphon off this precious water for private profit. ‘These rains may be the last chance for many months to top up town water supplies, like those at Collarenebri, and replenish billabongs and other wetlands, like the Menindee Lakes. This water should be used for the common good and for the health of the river itself.”

That was not be then and it doesn’t look like First Nations people, the river itself or the farmers that depend on it to feed their livestock will see much of this flood water either.So what do we do? Remember the ICAC report found the department had failed to strike the right balance between the needs of irrigators, towns and the environment. Here at the Justice and Peace Office we are asking ourselves and other allies that question and we would love to hear from you.