Wilcannia: The town with no water
The river stopped flowing through Wilcannia, in north-western New South Wales, in September last year. It’s now just a series of dank green ponds. Signs by the bridge over the Lower Darling warn of harmful algae that “may cause serious harm to humans and animals”. The animals have no choice, though, and the kangaroos are still drinking it, despite the smell.
Wilcannia’s 700 residents, the majority of them Indigenous, only drink water that arrives in boxes on the back of trucks from the desert-dry Broken Hill, 200 kilometres away, or from even further afield.
The town’s community radio station, Wilcannia River Radio, has started collecting and distributing donated water, although it’s nowhere near enough to satisfy demand.
A mother of five said her 10-litre carton was gone within a day. It would likely be another week before she was allocated the next free one. In the meantime, she was buying boxed water.
Some households are spending up to $60 a week on water. Almost everyone in Wilcannia, from the local pharmacist to the healthcare centre receptionist to the shire workers, buys water rather than risk drinking what comes out of the taps. A mother who cannot always afford to buy cartons says she boils the high-salinity tap water and adds cordial so her kids will drink it.
The Central Darling Shire recently switched Wilcannia over to bore supply and says the heavily treated water it pumps to homes is in line with national drinking water guidelines. But there is an understandable mistrust of the town water among locals. An undated sign in the public toilets beside Wilcannia Hospital instructs, on shire letterhead, “Do not drink this water”. It cites the contamination of Wilcannia’s water supply and says it is not fit for human consumption until further notice. Scrawled on the drinking fountain in the main street is a warning: “Drink this water, you are going to die”.
Without water in the river, though, the town is dying anyway. It’s the sixth year in a row that the Darling River hasn’t had a regular flow here, a run of dry years never known in the river’s history. “Give us a chance,” says Barkandji senior elder Kerry “Sissy” King, addressing the politicians she holds responsible. “Come out here and see how you feel about living [with no water]. They’ve taken it from the nation that lives off the river system. Come and sit in the gutter with us.”
State and federal politicians blame the drought. But the drought only started two years ago, not six. For Wilcannia residents this is a man-made disaster, and the lack of water coming down the Darling is a direct result of mismanagement and over-allocation upstream.
“The system is totally broken,” says local grazier Arthur Davies. “Without the Darling, this country out here is finished. Doomed.”
The crisis has united graziers and Indigenous communities in the region, and they agree on how things can be fixed.
The final report of Bret Walker’s Murray–Darling Basin Royal Commission, established by the South Australian government, found that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) had acted unlawfully, and proposed a complete overhaul of the system. It found water allocations were driven by politics and a culture of secrecy: a “desire to keep its work and decision-making processes away from proper scrutiny”.
Or, as Brendon Adams of Wilcannia River Radio, put it: “Lies. It’s all lies.”
No rain is forecast for Wilcannia and its surrounds. Even if it rained heavily in the right catchments tomorrow, the water would take three months to make its way down here. The last remaining water in Wilcannia’s weir, really just a dirty pond in the riverbed, will run out in the next two months – at which point the water treatment plant and bore system will be under even more strain, to flush toilets, fill evaporative coolers, keep plants alive, feed animals.
It’s not clear, either, if bore supplies will hold out. There’s no way to tell how much groundwater is accessible and the local boring contractor is busy. It’s likely there will be increasing volumes drawn from below the surface. He is already contracted to sink more than 30 bores in the vicinity of Wilcannia, mainly for the use of local graziers and shire roadworks.
The Darling is Australia’s third longest river, reaching from its intersection with the Murray up to Queensland. Yet it hardly deserves this grand title – from Menindee to Bourke, roughly 800 kilometres, there is no flow at all. Walgett and Brewarrina, on the Barwon, a Darling tributary above Bourke, are also bone dry.
The recent fish kills at Menindee brought national attention to the state of the Lower Darling, yet the situation in nearby Wilcannia is arguably worse. As grazier Arthur Davies notes, “the fish aren’t a problem around here”. They’re long gone.
Today it’s beyond wildest imagination but Wilcannia was once a port town – Australia’s third biggest inland port. In tourism information posted by the Wilcannia bridge, photographs of rowboats and paddle steamers bumping into each other beside the same bridge mock the present moment.
Aboriginal communities have been living along the Barka – as it is known by the Barkandji – for at least 40,000 years. After a period of intense frontier wars, the Barkandji (“people of the river”) were displaced and moved into towns and surrounding stations, then onto reservations.
These early decades of colonialism also brought the first acts of environmental vandalism. To ease the way for riverboat traffic, rock bars that had existed for millennia – which also served as weirs to regulate water levels through times of both flood and drought – were blasted out, along with ancient fish traps and the Barkandji sacred site where the rainbow serpent lives.
In the mid-1990s, a national market for water was established. The implications for Indigenous people were profound. Having not owned land or farms they were excluded from any entitlements to tradeable water rights, and the consequent wealth-generating process.
By this time, experts were already warning of over-allocation throughout the basin, and caps were imposed on water extraction for the first time. The Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, in its extremity, prompted the 2007 Water Act. Widely admired, the act centred around a commitment to protecting the basin using the best available science – one that placed the environment above political or commercial interests.
The Murray–Darling Basin Plan was intended to deliver on the principles of the Water Act. Instead its new “water-sharing” arrangements became a free-for-all. Wilcannia and other local populations were essentially unrepresented in basin plan negotiations, as the Barkandji native title claim was yet to be recognised.
Meanwhile, lobbyists courted politicians from across the spectrum for new and larger allocations and sought to minimise environmental ones.
In the north, the cotton-growing corporations were wildly successful and used their generous allocations to expand farms, buy larger pumps, and increase off-river water storages. The likes of Webster Farms and Darling Farms and the foreign owners of Cubbie Station established operations that were never going to be environmentally sustainable. They forged on anyway.
Cut to 2019, and too much water has been taken for irrigation upstream, not enough left to flow down the Darling River. It’s been a collective act of bastardry, if not outright corruption. An environmental catastrophe.
Every pernicious effect of colonialism has combined in Wilcannia. First, it was the seizure of the land, then the banning of culture and destruction of environment, the lack of representation, and now, finally, the water. “We’re already lost,” says Sissy King. “How much more lost can we be?”
It’s hard to dispute the words of anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, that colonialism is a structure, not an event.
The cost of living in Wilcannia today – both practical and metaphorical – is exacerbated by the water crisis, only adding to its dysfunction. The local economy is in a state of collapse and unemployment is high. Most shops are shuttered, even the ones that are open. Fresh fruit and vegetables are rare and expensive in the single small supermarket, and basics such as pasta cost two to three times normal prices.
Social housing is dangerously overcrowded – an issue that requires an investigation of its own – and crime rates, particularly domestic violence, are high. Health risks are rife, as are substance and alcohol abuse. Life expectancy is devastatingly low – at last count, 37 years for an Aboriginal male. And there is little to do: this year the locals won’t even be able to cheer on their rugby teams at home games as the ground is too dry to play on and there’ll be no water to spare.
None of these problems will be solved by the local council – because there is none. It was dismissed and went into administration in 2014, after the shire was declared bankrupt. The town’s current administrators, who are toiling just to keep the lights on, were appointed by the state government. New elections aren’t expected until September 2020. Until then, residents are without local representation.
Yet in this tight-knit community people are working hard to survive, and believe the longstanding problems are not insurmountable. “We want to have a good feeling in our hearts, not one of being denied,” says Barkandji elder “Pop” Cyril Hunter. “We want to feel like people care.”
The 2012 Murray Darling Basin Plan had a budget of $13 billion over 12 years. This money was to fund the return of the necessary water, as legislated, to keep the system in environmental balance – mainly through the purchasing of allocations from willing farmers and irrigators. As of 2019, more than $8 billion has been spent on the water buybacks and subsidies for infrastructure investment. Again, mainly for the benefit of irrigators, and in the name of “water efficiency”.
The net result, according to the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent body, is that “environmental flow targets set by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, which are required to be met to produce environmental improvements, have failed to be achieved”. Its February 2019 report found, furthermore, that “instead of an increase there has actually been no improvement or even a decline in water flows since the implementation of the Basin Plan”.
These observations match those of Wilcannia residents and regional graziers. They say the Darling hasn’t flowed regularly since the effects of the basin plan hit the river system. Wilcannia locals have seen droughts before, but every adult in town knows the river kept flowing through previous spells.
An Australian Academy of Science report on the Menindee fish kills found “there is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic decline of condition through dry periods”. Based on observed data from gauges at Brewarrina, Bourke and Wilcannia since 1960, the report found that diversions have reduced annual flow volumes in the Darling River by about half.
Federal water minister David Littleproud responded to the report by first calling it political rather than scientific, before trotting out the now-common defence of the cotton and irrigation industries: blame the drought. He then drew attention to the small amounts of water these groups had drawn out of the system in the past year compared to previous years, relative to total volumes in the system.
Irrigators are able to draw out allowances in whichever year they choose, in years when the water price is low for example, then store the water behind their ever-larger weirs and in private dams. They have been given access to high, medium and low flows.
Even as Littleproud issued his statement, irrigators in the northern basin were running sprinkler systems across thousands of acres of cotton.
No one in Wilcannia believes the drought is primarily responsible for their situation. “The river used to run through droughts – now it doesn’t,” said Cyril Hunter. “The government made this drought,” said Brendon Adams, motioning towards the dry river bed. Many in Wilcannia also pointed to the age of the fish killed at Menindee as proof they survived the Millennium Drought. Some were up to 70 years old.
Coming to grips with the Murray–Darling system is disorienting. The language of water management is not designed to be straightforward: extractions, buybacks and return flows, sustainable and baseline diversion limits, classes of pumps and water licences, gigalitres, megalitres, billions of litres. And that’s before we even get to the overlapping responsibilities of the different governments, various acts, water-sharing plans and management authorities.
As Professor Sue Jackson, a geographer and water expert at Griffith University, explains it: “Water flows to power.”
The MDBA maintains that its efforts in the past six years have led to the recovery of more than 2100 gigalitres for the system. But the actual water is nowhere to be seen, in the northern basin rivers at least. Compliance measures have been notoriously lax, methods of gauging water returns basically untested, water theft common. Perhaps strangest of all, by the MDBA’s own admission up to 50 per cent of surface water extractions in the northern basin are unmetered. It has been described as an honesty box system, which is reliant upon corporations that are trying to make money.
Each year, the MDBA and state water agencies produce reports that run to thousands of pages, but they lack information in key areas. To read through them is to face the question of whether their function is not to manage the fair sharing of water but to provide cover for the outrage that is occurring.
State governments, meanwhile, are still running water-sharing regimes based on the interim arrangements put together in 2012-13. Due to regulatory and bureaucratic intransigence, the states’ updated water-resource plans aren’t due to be implemented until July this year at the earliest. Even so, the NSW government is running behind in its preparations. This means that NSW is still allocating water according to arrangements that take no account of either the subsequent draining of parts of the river system, its changed environmental state or the emergency needs of communities along the river. Nor do they take into account the successful 2015 native title claim of the Barkandji, covering 400 kilometres of the Lower Darling including water rights, which remain entirely theoretical.
The only significant reassessment of the original basin plan was initiated in 2016 under then water minister Barnaby Joyce. To the horror of scientists and environmentalists, the northern basin review found that even less water would be returned to the Darling. The recovery target for the northern basin was reduced from 450 gigalitres to 320 gigalitres a year in an amendment to the Water Act. The government would spend even more on “efficiency measures”, including more funds for irrigators. They are completely untested and, in many cases, speculative. A senate committee stated at the time that the MDBA had determined “the same environmental benefits could be achieved without having to use as much water”.
Joyce had a more straight-talking explanation of the changes he oversaw. As reported by the ABC, he told a gathering in Shepparton, in northern Victoria, that he had given water back to agriculture through the plan so the “greenies were not running the show”.
“We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you,” he told irrigators.
The river’s native title owners and other Aboriginal communities were invited to respond to the review, but it was consultation in name only. The MDBA subsequently reported, “an overwhelming number of submissions from Aboriginal people stated that the changes proposed to the Basin Plan are not supported by Aboriginal people”. Nevertheless, their views were overridden. A benefit package was developed to get the amendment through – a series of compensatory measures sometimes referred to locally in Wilcannia as “shut-up money”.
Obviously not all, or even most, farmers in the northern basin are thriving, but the deck remains stacked in their favour. While big irrigators are paid millions in water buybacks, and subsidised to upgrade their pipes, weirs and farming methods, Wilcannia residents are buying their own water because their river is dry. As Sissy King puts it, “Why should they be given money for what they stole from us?”
For the Barkandji, the river is more than a physical body of water or economic lifeline. As Cyril Hunter explains, “Water is our life, our culture. It’s our bloodline, that old river.” Sitting on a verandah by the river, he tells of the relationship between Barkandji people and the sacred aspects in the river; how the world is explained using the stories of the river; how traditional hunting of animals and fish, and the custodianship of the plants and trees, is based on a river that flows.
Culture isn’t something that can be drawn from an emergency bore via a chemical treatment facility.
Wilcannia means “a gap in the bank where the flood waters escape”. Hunter hasn’t seen it flood in years and, pointing to some kids playing nearby, notes that they’ve never seen it flow properly. He tells of how, when he was a child, his elders taught him to hunt and fish, what plants and fruits to collect and when, as well as the associated stories. The local ecology is now so disrupted that it has become impossible to pass on that knowledge.
The consensus in Wilcannia is that a solution to the Darling water problem is still possible. Rainfall averages across the basin have barely moved in the past century, so while increasing temperatures are a factor, fixing the immediate crisis doesn’t rest on hand-wringing about the drought. It means reducing entitlements for irrigation, increasing flows for rivers and wetlands and prioritising the needs of river communities who depend on it for basic sustenance. Crucially, it means overhauling how the system is managed, starting with the governance of the basin.
Otherwise we can kiss the Lower Darling goodbye, along with the communities living along it.
Standing in the riverbed in Wilcannia, all the government’s claims about “environmental flows” and “sustainable diversion limits” seem like a sick joke. There is no water here.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "The town with no water". Subscribe here.