Reflections from the first days of the Citizens’ Inquiry

Blog from Citizens' Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes - 23 March, 2019

by Michelle Maloney

We’ve had three full days and one half day of Public Hearings for the Citizens' Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes.  And I’m feeling so much grief from the stories that have been told that I can’t eat and I can’t sleep.

Citizens Inquiry panelists (seated: left to right) Manav, Michelle, Gill and Gwynn listen during Clair (standing: right) and Jennifer Bates' welcome to country in Wentworth. Photo: Anne Spudvilas

Tonight the stories and faces of the people affected by the dying Darling/Barka River keep moving through my mind: the man from Menindee who had to stop his friend from shooting all his animals and committing suicide, because they no longer had any water to drink.  The woman, a traditional custodian from Wilcannia, who wept as she talked about how the Darling River used to flow clear and deep and all the kids would grow up living, learning and playing around the River.  The man who loved his family farm – with its fruit trees and vineyard – but could no longer work it full time because of the lack of water. He had to get a job in town, and instead of employing hundreds of fruit pickers every season, he could now only employ his son.  The pilot, who for 40 years flew chartered flights around the region, and noticed from the 1990s onwards, the huge, extensive dams being built in the lower parts of Queensland, to hold onto water for cotton and other large scale agriculture, and prevent it from flowing down to the Menindee Lakes and Darling River.  The man who described the birdlife, fish, yabbies, mussels and insects that used to flourish in and around the Menindee Lakes, and which survived each dry season to reappear again in the wet, but which are now gone.  The woman who simply asked – what will be left for her grand-children?

Wentworth artist Marg Whyte

Marg Whyte, 85 year old author and illustrator of the book "Death of a River", speaks to the Inquiry panel in Wentworth. Photo: Anne Spudvilas

I keep seeing the looks on peoples’ faces when they’d describe how this time, this is different – it’s not just drought, they’ve had bad droughts in the past; they’ve just never seen the river like this before. And it’s not just the Darling River that’s suffering, it’s all the tributaries leading into it, and other rivers connected to it; it’s the flood plains being dammed and blocked by flood plain ‘harvesting’ and pipelines taking water from one place and feeding it into new mines in another place.  How it’s not just the cotton farms up the river in Queensland, or the fact that so much water is extracted before it even reaches their place – it’s also the sheer disbelief that their own State government, their elected officials have let it all happen. Not just let it all happen, but created the ‘water crisis’ through mismanagement at best, and behind-closed-doors deals and corrupt behaviour at worst.  Many people said ‘no-one’s listening’ and ‘they don’t care about us’.

Tony Smith sings about the death of the Darling

Tony Smith shares a moving song about the death of the Darling, during the Wentworth hearing. Photo: Anne Spudvilas

I keep thinking about the fact that one woman said there are no emus at her place anymore, because they’re all dead.  Another man remembers the waters of the Darling River being so clear when he was a child, that he could stand in the water up to his chest and watch the yabbies come out and nibble his toes.  And another man said he used to float in the clear water and drink it, and it tasted great – but he couldn’t even let his dog in the foul water now.  Then there was the 85 year old lady who came out to talk to us, clutching a giant photo frame showing the bend in the river near her place, that was full of water and paddle steamers in 1907, half empty but still full of life in 1947 but empty, for the first time in her life, in 2017.  There was a woman who told us how she organised a funeral for the Anabranche several years ago, when its waters were cut off and fed into a pipe. The middle aged man whose eyes filled with tears when he admitted he was depressed, and worried for his children’s future.  And there were so many more.

We’re only 4 days into 10 days of Public Hearings.  My heart hurts, my brain keeps buzzing and fuming and trying to think of ways to help and my body is exhausted.  Only 4 days of stories and this is how I feel – but my grief is just a tear drop compared to the empty river bed full of grief, fear and anger that people out here are feeling.

Confluence of Murray and Darling Rivers

Confluence of the Murray and Darling Rivers at Wentworth - the presence of blue green algae causes the green colouration of the water. Photo: James Lee