‘The river is like the blood in our bodies …’
“You might think it looks lovely, but all I see is misery.” These were the words that Uncle Darrell Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, used to describe the state of the Coorong to a group of visitors in early September.
Uncle Darrell spoke of the death of pelicans in their thousands. He showed us rock fish traps not used for decades. He pointed out a Mallee Fowl mound, whose fowl have disappeared. And he shared stories from his childhood of waters and land abundant with life. Today the Coorong, a narrow lagoon system that extends from the mouth of the Murray River 130 kilometres south-east along the coastline, supports nothing like the biodiversity that it once did.
“The river is like the blood in our bodies. If there is a blockage, country gets sick.”
It is more than a simile. Uncle Darrell is one of very few Ngarrinderi over 70 – with most of the others having passed before their time. “But we will keep on fighting for country,” he said to our group, who were participating in the latest in a series of tours of the Murray-Darling Basin organised by the Uniting Church.
In early 2013, on the back of the Millennium Drought and in the early stages of the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, a diverse gathering of people – farmers, pastors, scientists, environmentalists – met to talk about the challenges facing the Murray-Darling Basin. It was the first of several meetings that aimed to provide a safe and inclusive forum for Uniting Church members and friends from various interest groups to progress the church’s vision to be a transforming presence for the common good in the Basin.
From these early gatherings other initiatives followed – including four week-long bus tours in the Basin so far – of the Upper Murray; the Darling; the Murrumbidgee; and most recently in September the Lower Murray, culminating in lakes Alexandrina and Albert, the Coorong and the Southern Ocean. As well as what we might consider to be the more usual tourist experiences, these trips have included meals, meetings and public forums at churches; farm and industry visits; and time with Aboriginal people. The aim has been to facilitate a holistic experience for participants, where they can learn about life and its challenges in these places (including the challenges of water reform), reflect on who we are in Creation, and think about what contribution churches are making and might further make in this context.
I have been on all four Basin tours. In 2015, we heard from communities along a drought-affected Darling River. They were deeply distressed at the lack of water and scathing of the NSW Government’s management of the river system. Their views were vindicated two years on. Recently the interim report of a government-commissioned inquiry, which followed allegations aired on Four Corners of water theft in the Barwon-Darling, found that NSW compliance and enforcement of water extractions “have been ineffectual and require significant and urgent improvement”. The report recommends far-reaching reforms.
On other tours we heard from irrigation communities along the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Edward rivers who have been affected by the return of water for environmental flows that is occurring under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The target under the plan is to reduce average annual extractions from the river system by about a quarter by the end of this decade. This is a massive change for those who have relied upon these extractions. The challenge to the social fabric of communities shouldn’t be underestimated. Communities need support to adjust, and the level of trust required is profound.
The return of water is difficult but necessary, for the sake of the Basin and those who depend on it. By the mid 1990s, when extractions from the river system were capped, about 80 per cent of the average annual water flow to the ocean was being taken for human uses. Drought-like flows which would have been experienced 1 in 20 years prior to white agricultural settlement were now happening in 6 out of 10 years. John Williams, a fellow Uniting Church member and respected scientist, writes in the Journal & Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales that the trajectory of the development of the Basin resulted in “altered river flow regimes, rising salinity and acidity, loss of soil structure, increased loads of nutrients and sediments to rivers, and large-scale degradation of the rangelands … the invasion of environmental weeds and feral animals, the loss of flora and fauna species, and the breakdown of ecosystems.”
I have seen how environmental watering events are improving wetlands in some parts of the Basin – places like Banrock Station in the Riverland, South Australia. But on the whole, all is not well with the return of water to the rivers.
Over $5 billion of federal money has been spent so far on water recovery – buying back water from irrigators (which has now ceased) and paying for improvements to irrigation infrastructure so that water can be used more efficiently. The Australian Government says it is most of the way toward achieving the water return target. However, Williams and his colleague Quentin Grafton say that, for reasons to do with hydrological complexities and the way in which water flows are accounted for, on the whole diversions of water from the Basin have not decreased. It is a claim supported by the 2016 Australian State of the Environment Report’s findings on the Basin. A “huge failure in public policy” is the expression Williams uses.
The ecological horrors that happened at the mouth of the Murray during the Millennium Drought (2000-2010) still loom large for those who live there. Our Lower Murray tour group heard from local people about how lakes Alexandrina and Albert started to dry up, exposing toxic soils. Children from Raukkan, an Aboriginal community on the shores of Lake Albert, got sick. The remaining water was too salty for crops and for animals to drink – and this was even though barrages between the Coorong and the lower lakes prevent the intrusion of seawater into the lakes. Of the more than 30 dairies in the area, only one was able to operate for the duration of the drought, and only a handful survive today. The mouth of the river closed – it had to be dredged continuously. Parts of the Coorong became five times or more saltier than the sea – fatal to many plants and animals.
When I finally saw the mouth of the Murray, from a boat on September 7, it was being dredged. Its flow was so underwhelming that I was overwhelmed.
I have learned over these last four or so years, in this epic Murray-Darling adventure, that I need to attend to voices from the river that have been supressed or silenced – however uncomfortable that is. To listen for the disappearing and disappeared creatures of the Basin. To seek out those people who know the river most intimately – in various ways, locally and system-wide.
Later this year, 20 years after they first lodged their native title claim, Ngarrindjeri native title will be officially recognised.
The Ngarrindjeri Nation Sea Country Plan says: “Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan (Listen to what Ngarrindjeri people have to say).
“Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.”