Aboriginal people in Walgett describe the Ngamaay (Namoi) and Baawan (Barwon) rivers as the lifeblood of their community, waterways which generations have cared for and lived on for thousands of years. However, in recent years the rivers have been largely dry with a massive negative impact on community health and wellbeing.

"Well the river is our life: it's like anywhere in the world, if you don't have water you don't have life. The river when I was growing up was a good thing for everybody. Not to say we didn't take things for granted but we respected the waters. It was our life through fishing, drinking, cooking but today there's nothing there. It's really sad. I think to me it's greed by people upstream that don't allow the water to come down" (Community member, quoted in Yuwaya Ngarra-li Community Data Gathering Report, 2019).

The drying up of local rivers is attributed by the Dharriwaa Elders Group to drought and poor management of rivers and water infrastructure by government, which has prioritised the interests of farmers and irrigators over Aboriginal people. The lack of respect and understanding for Aboriginal knowledge of river systems and the perspectives or interests of Aboriginal people is an ongoing legacy of decades of institutional racism and has had disproportionately negative impacts on Aboriginal people in Walgett in a number of ways.

The DEG has long held concerns for the health of surface and ground waters of Walgett. Over its 23 years of operation, DEG has become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of Walgett’s water infrastructure and capacity, the lack of planning for climate change, and the low priority given to Walgett community's water security. Our Caring for Country program works for a vision for Walgett where wellbeing of people and Country is vital, and Walgett children have a better, brighter future. We will link Aboriginal culture and science with western science to renew the health of the river systems and groundwaters. We are developing a collection of policies and requirements for management of waters for the social, economic and cultural development of our community.

As a result of our work we will own and manage water for socio-economic development, the environment and Aboriginal cultural practices and wellbeing.

Namoi River completely dry at Walgett March 2019
Namoi River completely dry at Walgett March 2019

Dharriwaa Elders Group is determined to make sure that the voters and decisionmakers know what is happening to the rivers and other waterways in DEG's area of interest in the Northern Murray Darling Basin.

DEG's Founders deeply cared for Country, as evidenced by this letter written to NSW Western Lands Commissioner about their distress at seeing the suffering of the Narran River in 2002. After experiencing totally dry rivers in 2018 - 2020 and seeing water in irrigation dams and channels at the same time - DEG has resolved to learn the truth about water management, to speak up about it and make change for the future wellbeing of our Country (which includes waters) and community.

For those who care to see how our knowledge has developed there are many policy submissions we have workshopped and policy positions we have developed over the years, on our Publications and Reports page.

A recent submission was made to the Australian Government Productivity Commission Murray-Darling Basin Plan: Implementation Review 2023, 11 August 2023. DEG completed its submission with the following recommendations:

Greater benefits will accrue to the Walgett Aboriginal community if NSW and Commonwealth water decisionmakers:

  • Correct the failures of governance that have made the situation where Walgett despite its location of two major rivers of the MDB cannot access river pastimes, river foods and safe drinking water
  • Fix the internal cultures and corruption risks within government water departments
  • Seek to build trust with Aboriginal communities and ACCOs to enable more effective engagement
  • Understand ACCOs as valued stakeholders and not a minor interest group or customers
  • Respect ACCOs by understanding that it is not appropriate to expect them to participate in “consultations” or “engagement” processes that have no purpose other than to give agency representatives an experience meeting Aboriginal people or the appearance of engagement
  • Recognise and affirm the interests and rights of Aboriginal communities and nation groups in water governance
  • Ensure legislation and policy enables unimpeded and safe access to waterways for Aboriginal people
  • Ensure legislation and policy prioritises critical human water needs and water and food security
  • Ensure legislation and policy provides access to safe, low sodium drinking water for all Australian communities
  • Reduce the amounts of water irrigators and mining interests take from surface and groundwaters to lawful limits
  • Repair the health of the waters of the Murray Darling Basin
  • Manage rivers and water according to the Principles of the NSW Water Management Act 2000
  • Change the Water Act to broaden the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder’s role to include management of water for Aboriginal needs and uses.
  • Establish a body with the specific role of overseeing Aboriginal interests and involvement in water management.