Today is World Rivers Day. This guest post explores one of the most important rivers in New South Wales.
World Rivers Day is a time to remember the importance of rivers for human life amd indeed for the health of the planet as a whole. Rivers are particularly important on the continent of Australia, where much of the land is desert. The river system ensures that the distinctive features of desert, mountain, plains, and coastal areas are fed and nourished.
One of Australia’s most significant rivers, the Barka (Lower Darling), is in crisis. People and ecosystems are suffering, and situation seems only to deteriorate further with every passing season. The principal problem is overextraction of water upstream.
This year, the Global Water Forum in conjunction with the Water Justice Hub of the Australian National University is focusing on the Barka and the many stressors facing it. They argue that it is time to listen to what the Traditional Owners are saying about the plight of the Barka.
They argue that the way forward is already being shown by river communities like Menindee and Wilcannia. That involves supporting the Traditional Owners’ voices for the river, and listening g carefully to those voices.
In 2019, a combination of overextractions of water upstream, below-normal rainfall and high temperatures resulted in one of Australia’s most important rivers, the Darling River (also known as the Barka or Baaka River along its lower reaches) to run dry. While the Barka River has run low before, dry spells are becoming increasingly severe and more frequent with multiple and serious negative ecological impacts from increasing still-water events exacerbated by weir pools and greater ‘run-of-the-river’ water extractions.
Adding to the problems of the Barka River are water theft, ‘missing flows’, floodplain harvesting (possibly illegal), and water planning that has its priorities ‘back to front’, namely, water for communities and basic needs should come before irrigation, but has not. Worse yet, these well-documented failures are occurring in the State of New South Wales where water management operates under a key principle that “water quality of all water sources should be protected and, wherever possible, enhanced” (as set out in the Water Management Act 2000).
The relevant water sharing plan for the Barka River, still in force today, was modified in 2012. The changes removed some pumping restrictions, allowed irrigators to extract water from rivers with much larger diameter pipes and to extract water, in any one year, up to three times the annual allowable maximum on their water license. These changes contributed to an increase in upstream extractions for irrigation over the period 2014-17 that, in turn, caused an ‘anthropogenic’ drought.
This has reduced water availability and water quality for downstream communities, and also for the water-dependent eco-systems along the Barka River and its wetlands.
People of the Barka
Extractions from surface waters, which can account for as much 80% of annual flows in times of drought, impose a big cost on the river and downstream users. For instance, there areover 700 residents living in the town of Wilcannia, located on the banks of the Barka River. They saw their town run out of water in 2018. In response to this water emergency that lastedmany months, and in the absence of a co-ordinatedgovernment response, drinking water was supplied by the community coming together and with volunteers trucking in tens of thousands of water cartons.
The town of Menindee’s water supply is retained behind a weir on the river. This supply suffered from blooms of blue-green algae that continued long after the drought ended. At Menindee, and its nearby culturally significant lakes, there was also a major ecological disaster that included a series of devastating fish kills at the end of 2018 and early 2019. According to a scientific panel established by the Australian Academy of Science to investigate this disaster, the fish kills were caused by insufficient stream flow; primarily a result of too much water extraction upstream.
Locals in Far Western NSW had been warning State and Federal members of parliament about these issues since the early 2000’s. At a state parliamentary inquiry in 2016, locals explicitly stated that if current management practices were not improved there would be a return to devastating conditions.
The voices of the people of the Barka were captured in posters graphically portraying their testimony at the ‘Citizens’ Inquiry’. The two posters above focused on themes relating to Wilcannia and Menindee. The posters below contain the testimonies of Rhonda Hynch and Cyril Hunter, captured as art for the exhibition ‘Aquawhen?’
Barkindji Woman, Rhonda Hynch featured in the exhibition. She posed the ultimate question about the Barka River: “Why have they chosen cotton and rice over life?”
As a result of the unfolding river disasters, and with due respect for the local and traditional knowledge holders of Barka River communities, a small group of volunteers came together to establish an Australian Peoples’ Tribunal 2019 Citizens’ Inquiry in to the Health of the Barka Darling River and Menindee Lakes. This Citizen’s Inquiry visited several towns along the river and invited their residents to give their testimony about the river. Those who gave witness were asked to respond to key questions such as: What is the current state of the Barka-Darling River? And what are the prime causes for the current state of the river?
Testimonies were given by 17 residents from Menindee and 15 from Wilcannia. The lived experiences of these Menindee and Wilcannia residents, given at the Citizen’s Inquiry, came together in a virtual exhibition on 15-22 September 2021. Convened by the Water Justice Hub, the ‘Aquawhen?’ exhibition was delivered via an online platform that amplifiedthe Voices of the Barka to the world. This exhibition included pictorials created by artists Rix Lee and Tom Horne for each testimony and two short films created by Dan Schulz and Otis Filley; one filmed in 2019-20 when the river was dry and another in 2021 that coincided with high stream flows.
“This is Barka River. That’s our Mother.”
In the words of Barkindji Elder, Cyril Hunter, featured in the exhibition: “This is Barka River. That’s our Mother, that’s our nature and without nature nothing will survive”.
Today, on World Rivers Day 2021, isn’t it time that Rhonda Hynch’s question received a response? And isn’t it time to listen to the Voices of the River and its peoples?
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Acknowledgement: This article was prepared by members of the Water Justice Hub and initiated on the unceded Country of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people that includes the upper Murrumbidgee(Big Water) River. It responds to the mismanagement of the Barka (Lower Darling) River that is in the Country of the Barkindji (People of the Barka).
The Water Justice Hub acknowledges the traditional custodians of Australian rivers who have sustainably managed their own Country since time immemorial. The Water Justice Hub pays it respects to allpeoples, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who continue to struggle for water justice and to promote the health and the life of the world’s rivers.
Quentin Grafton,Virginia Marshall, Ana Manero, John Williams, Caroline McFarlane, Dan Schulz, Kat Taylor, Paul Wyrwoll, Carina Wyborn, Mai Nguyen, William Nikolakis and Libby Larsen, from the Water Justice Hub.