The Water Justice Hub, Australian National University, ANU
One of Australia’s most significant rivers, the Barka (Lower Darling), is in crisis. People and ecosystems are suffering, and the situation seems only to deteriorate further with every passing season. The principal problem is overextraction of water upstream. The way forward, as shown by river communities like Menindee and Wilcannia, is to support the Traditional Owners’ voices for the river, and for the world to listen.
It’s World Rivers Day. This year, the Global Water Forum in conjunction with the Water Justice Hub is focusing on the Barka and the many stressors facing it. Quentin Grafton, Virginia Marshall, Ana Manero, John Williams, Caroline McFarlane, Dan Schulz, Bob Cotton, Paul Wyrwoll, Carina Wyborn, Mai Nguyen, William Nikolakis and Libby Larsen from the Water Justice Hub discuss here a recent effort to listen to what the People of the Barka are saying about their river. Isn’t it time to listen to the Voices of the River and its peoples?
Every year the world celebrates its rivers on 26th of September. This World Rivers Day, a key theme is the importance of clean fresh water, for everyone. A global goal that, sadly, remains unrealised. Delivering ‘water and sanitation for all’ does not only mean adequate water treatment, before and after water use, it also means ‘caring’ for the streams and rivers that many people rely on for their drinking water, sanitation, livelihoods, as well as for cultural and spiritual well-being.
Today is a day to reflect
Today is a day to step back, to contemplate and to consider the multiple value of rivers, including Indigenous values and kinship that is grounded in customary laws and traditions; for art, for culture, for livelihoods, for supporting basic human rights and needs (including drinking water), for recreation, and for all living things, not just people.
Tragically, most of the world’s rivers are in trouble and the problem is most acute in arid and semi-arid environments where water governance serves the few at the expense of the many, especially Indigenous peoples who are often marginalised in water governance processses. While climate change and droughts contribute to river decline, as does water pollution, dam-building and land clearing, a key cause is water mismanagement that is aided, in part, by the administrative capture of science.
A major consequence of poor water governance is that too much water is extracted by water-intensive industries that are given priority over the people and ecosystems that rely on rivers for their survival. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of global on-going decline and a water emergency, those in power seem hellbent on increasing non-sustainable water consumption, including from our planet’s dying rivers.
Water and life on the Barka
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 are over 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 lasted many months, and in the absence of a co-ordinated government 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.
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 18 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 amplified the 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”.
Barkindji Woman, Rhonda Hynch, also featured in the exhibition. She posed the ultimate question about the Barka River: “Why have they chosen cotton and rice over life?”
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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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 pay its respects to all peoples, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who continue to struggle for water justice and to promote the health and the life of the world’s rivers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the individual authors and do not represent the views of the Water Justice Hub, the Global Water Forum, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, UNESCO, the Australian National University, Oxford University, or any of the institutions to which the authors are associated. Please see the Global Water Forum terms and conditions here.