Words || Iki Minogue & Ja-Anne Lin
Towns in Inner NSW have been facing a water crisis. In the towns of Walgett, Collarenebri, Menindee, Broken Hill and Walcannia, residents are without access to safe drinking water. “Walgett” is a Gamilaraay word (also spelled Gomeroi, Gamilaroi or Kamilaroi) referring to the town’s location by the Barwon and Namoi river systems. These river systems are running dry.
The town’s taps offer only a foul-smelling bore water. The World Health Organisation and Dharriwaa Elder Group have been reported to contain twice the level of safe sodium levels in drinking water. Water which can cause rashes just from contact through showering, and when ingested, is likely to increase the risk of health problems in the community. Including high blood pressure. Which can increase the likelihood of stroke, heart problems and kidney disease.
In early January 2019, temperatures reached a record 49°C. The Bureau of Meterology has dubbed this Australia’s hottest month since records began in 1910. This increase in temperatures makes the dangers very present in communities with water scarcity, especially given the price of clean bottled water. Given the higher prices in rural communities, and the further impact this will have on Aboriginal people who are burdened by systemic poverty.
This leaves no other choice other than drinking bore water to survive. During one water run, an Aboriginal nurse told us that the intake of patients had sky-rocketed since the beginning of the water crisis.
Gamilaraay woman living in Collarenebri, Louise Sims, notes that “You can’t even drink the water at home…You [will] get kidney infections, bladder infections, you’ll start to get lumps on your skin.”
Children are particularly vulnerable, especially in the presence of chronic diseases, such as asthma, heart and circulatory diseases, high blood pressure and kidney diseases. Aboriginal children experience these diseases in statistically higher rates than non-Indigenous children. In Walgett, this means children have been forced to travel between their hometowns and Sydney, because staying could mean their medical conditions can start to become an immediate, life-threatening concern.
Aboriginal activist group Fighting in Resistance Equally (FIRE) has been organising water relief efforts as a countermeasure to the water crisis. Their response has involved raising money to deliver pallets of water to these communities, including physically driving up and delivering the water to these towns. This operation has since grown to collaborate with groups such as Dignity Water and Menindee Water Run, as well as individual activists. All of these parties work to organise regular deliveries of what has come to be the only source of clean water to these towns.
There has been no real response from government bodies. A comment from a member of the Walgett Shire Council stated that, “there is nothing wrong with the water…it’s clear, it’s good, there’s nothing wrong with it”. There has been no water relief provided by governing bodies, and it is largely the work of non-government groups who are aiding these people.
Uncle Larry Flick lives in the town of Collerenebri, a few towns past Walgett, and works with his family to coordinate the Collerenebri water runs with FIRE. Ja-Ann Lin, who has attended one of these water runs, noted a yarn with Uncle Larry in which he said “Before the cotton farms, the water was crystal clear, you could see the fish swimming in it.” He described the way that the now grey and empty river had colour, and such an abundance of fish you could, “stick your hand in and grab one.”
In my opinion, the whole situation in Colli and surrounds seems to be a microcosm of what is happening throughout colonial Australia.
The cause of the environmental problem should be clear. It is the cotton farms, it is agriculture within a colonial society that relies on industry, is driven by profit, and will destroy the earth to get there. However, it goes beyond that. In this big moment of climate change awareness, we must see how climate justice is embedded within the larger fight for anticolonial, Aboriginal justice.
This is a fight which Aboriginal people have been fighting since the landing of the fleet on Gweagal country (Botany Bay), marking the beginning of what consitutes an attempted genocide and cultural genocide against Aboriginal peoples. To be clear this has not stopped, and this is why government inaction in large Aboriginal communities like Walgett and Colli is no surprise.
We have to realise environmental destruction is just one part of a much larger picture – we need to go beyond a colonial solution to a colonial problem. I believe the perpetuated myth of individual actions – like waste reduction, sustainability etc. – as being our primary solutions, fails to address the core of the issue. We are living in a colonial society, that cares very little about the land, or the people here before them.
We need to lead our fight for justice by opposing the entire colonial system as a whole, if our “environmental justice” is to have any integrity, and be able to see the fight through. This is just as true for any other fight for justice, including LGBTQIA rights, justice surrounding gender and sexuality. The cis-heteronormativity patriarchy, the gender binary, biological essentialism, are similarly colonial constructs which decolonial knowledges have shown time and again, to be just that, a mediocre colonial construct, customs and beliefs you could say, that so many of us clearly exist beyond, that can subject people to so much unecessary injustice, which we would just be better off without.
What I learnt getting involved with FIRE, is that Aboriginal people, who’ve called this bullshit since day one, and are the original custodians of this land, and have been doing a pretty good damn job of living on the land without destroying it – what I learnt is that there’s a better way of doing things, and it has been existing all along. The hundreds of thousands of years of Aboriginal knowledge, culture, ways of living and seeing, that colonial language and knowledge are barely equipped to comprehend.
There is so much at stake and we have the power to lend our strength to resistance and survival. Group and community efforts like those coordinated by FIRE are necessary for those at the forefront being hit the hardest.
If this makes you want to take action, but you’re unsure of how to help, here are some things you can do; Organise and educative your community, each of us has our own communities and circles that we can access; If you have available time, FIRE regularly organises these runs, and are always after more hands to help; Perhaps you could even help organise fundraisers, rallies or events, reassess your time and resources and see what you can offer to help these people.
As settlers, uni students we are already granted a world of access, resources, power and I believe it is our duty to redistribute it. I believe we should be contacting the people who are creating these conditions. For example former Walgett Minister for Water, Nial Blair, resigned after the level of contact received from Menindee protestors. Whether this takes the form of protesting outside their office, organising a massive ‘call in’, ‘write in’, or ‘sit in’. Maybe you’ll join a small community group to find your place, and help get shit done.
Money is a resource too, and as uni students and settlers, we’re likely to be making more of it, have networks around us who have more of it; redistribute.
Unsure of how to help, maybe you can donate money towards the cause. We’re likely to have more money and resources than those who are currently being affected by this. You can do this by searching “Urgent Support For Walgett & North-West NSW Communities” on facebook for a fundraiser link, or find more information on the Galiislife website.