Resilience in the Face of a Water Crisis

Blog from Citizens' Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes - 27 March, 2019

I just returned home after a whirlwind series of public hearings of the Citizen’s Inquiry into the Health of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes in Mildura, Wentworth, Broken Hill and Menindee. I was only able to participate as a panel member in these first four hearings, and subsequent hearings in other affected communities continue in my absence, however my brief immersion in the Citizens' Inquiry has left a lasting impression on me.

Lake Menindee boat ramp at Sunset Strip.

Lake Menindee boat ramp at Sunset Strip. Photo: James K Lee

Since returning to Sydney I have had lingering feelings of grief – and at times – anger. Although the cumulative decision-making of governments, industrial agriculturalists and water managers which has led to the degradation of this delicate river ecosystem has been heavily weighted towards economic considerations, the impacts on human and non-human communities of this region go far beyond economics.

The ancientness of this river seems to speak to the infinite in the hearts of the people who live by it. Everyone here, irrespective of their cultural heritage, speaks of a rich timeless connection and love for their river. Many people spoke, both implicitly and explicitly, of a deep symbiosis connecting them with this river ecosystem. This is about more than just the theft of livelihoods or the dispossession of water “resources”. The destruction of the river is itself mirrored in the erosion of dignity, identity and wellbeing of the people of the river. Their distress has a deeply personal ring to it… as if a loved family member is deteriorating in front of their eyes.

A First Nations elder in Wentworth spoke of stopping by the side of the road to pick up carcasses of dead emus who had died from drinking poisoned water. She was a traditional weaver and artist whose totem animal was the emu. Their feathers adorned her art, however she could not use the feathers of these emu as they hadn't died in a good way.

Another First Nations woman in Broken Hill spoke of her pain of not being able to teach her own children how to fish the river as her father had taught her. The depth of her pain of witnessing in real time, a rupture in the chain of cultural lineage and heritage which has connected her and her mob to this land seems unfathomable to me. My heart felt torn as I heard the written words of a First Nations man being read out by a friend. He apologised to the river for failing to protect the river in his role as a steward.

The victims of this ecological travesty are widespread. Yet after the last week of hearings I am also surprisingly hopeful. The pain in the eyes and words of the locals coexists alongside immeasurable strength, determination and resilience.

Jordin Gildy

8 year old Jordin Gilby recites the poem she and her nan, Jan Fennell, wrote about the river. Photo: James K Lee.

The courage of an 8-year-old girl from Menindee (who was quick to assert that she was almost 9) particularly touched me. She shared a poem she had written with her nan's assistance in which she asked for solutions which would make the people happy again. Of all that spoke she perhaps has the greatest entitlement to immediate action as the consequences of this short-sighted mismanagement and exploitation will affect her future the most. She will have to live by, or ultimately leave, the river long after all else have passed on. Her selflessness was particularly arresting. If only those continuing their destructive exploitation of the waters could hear her.

We also met Riley, a young teenager from outside the region who has organised for truckloads of water to be delivered to Menindee every few weeks to sustain the local community. (The drinking water in Menindee ran dry 4 months ago and the local community is now almost completely reliant on donated water. The water coming out of their taps smells and is all but completely toxic. Locals are currently drinking bottled water and using water such as that bought by the trucks for all their other needs).

Riley McIntosh [right] and his dad, Rod McIntosh, delivering two B-double tankers of donated water to Menindee. Photo: Michelle Maloney

Perhaps the starting point for us all to move forward is to honour the resilience and compassion modelled by these young concerned citizens, by extending this compassion to the river itself. Time and time again we heard people speak of their deep knowing that the river would bounce back if, as one person told us in Broken Hill, we only ‘give her a chance’. We heard a range of solutions offered by people about how to restore the river – ranging from immediate actions designed to minimise further damage to longer-term objectives to establish a different way of relating to the river.

This new paradigm of relationship could certainly be enriched by looking to, and walking alongside the First Nations custodians of this area. Uncle Badger Bates spoke in Wentworth of his fight to have the traditional name of the Barka river restored in recognition of the symbiosis between the river and its traditional custodians, the Barkandji. There is little doubt in my mind that explicit recognition in law and governance systems of this type of enduring relationship between landscape and custodian may instill a much-needed sense of our responsibilities to the ecosystems which support us.