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Illustration: Guy Shield

As an Aboriginal girl growing up in rural Australia, time on country with family was my safe haven. I did not need to have my guard up, I was home with my family among all that was beautiful about my country. The rolling thuyuls (hills) that lead to the Warrumbungle Ranges, the powdery red dirt the consistency of garaay (sand) that felt so comforting between my toes, the feeling of buwi-y (smelling) the trees and the morning frosts that awakened my lungs, knowing the day ahead with my cousins and siblings was going to be a good one.

I recall the beauty of swimming in the Castlereagh River and the taste of yellow belly (golden perch) fish on country. The Castlereagh River is part of the Murray–Darling basin, and I have watched it worsen over recent decades. It is not the only waterway in this basin that has been devastated. To think that in my lifetime, things could deteriorate in this way is sobering and speaks to the urgency of this crisis. A land mass cared for and managed since time immemorial now sits on the brink of irreversible devastation.

First Nations in this country have the oldest living cultures in the world which have sustained and been sustained by this land called Australia. Protecting country is an essential aspect of culture and survival. From 1788, the British colonisation of Australia marginalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from land and water resources and traditional rights and interests. This marginalisation has harmed not only First Nations but the land and water itself.

The land was cleared to make way for the ‘settlements,’ the rivers, lakes and even certain locations within the sea were depleted of fish as the invaders netted large catches, kangaroos were hunted unsustainably, and the waterways were polluted. Aboriginal people’s existence was never to be the same, as loss of family, ceremony, free movement and activity on their land became something that was persecuted.

In came the invader with law and gun to strip us of our lore and lands.

It is difficult to express how essential to our being that the land and waterways are—we require them to ensure the sustainability of life but are equally bound to serve in their protection and preservation as our cultural responsibility. Since invasion, that responsibility was stripped from us and we have watched on with our hearts in our throats as the destruction of both have taken place.

Protecting country is an essential aspect of culture and survival. Marginalisation has harmed not only First Nations but the land and water itself.


The sharing of water—a scarce and finite resource on this dry continent—has always been a contentious and difficult area of law, even more so in the Murray–Darling Basin where the water resource is shared across four states and the Australian Capital Territory.

Made up of the River Murray, the Darling River, the Murrumbidgee River, and all creeks and rivers that flow into them, the landscape within the Murray–Darling Basin is incredibly diverse. It includes forests, plains, grasslands, mountain ranges, and both dry and ephemeral lakes and wetlands. The Murray–Darling Basin supports a significant portion of Australia’s biodiversity including species of flora and fauna found nowhere else, such as the Coorong mullet which is known for its slippery and sleek silver body and yellow eyes, the glorious superb parrot with its bright green feathers and yellow cheeks and red throat that make it easily identifiable, and the Murray cod, an ancient giant of the freshwater. These systems rely on the natural drying and flooding regime at appropriate times of the year. This variability provides for major breeding events of birds, fish and other fauna.

Over the years there has been an over-allocation of water entitlements in many areas of the Murray–Darling Basin and a manipulation of the natural path of the waterways via dams and weirs. Water resources have not been able to meet the water needed for environmental flows and human requirements. Instead, they have been allocated to industry.

To address the problem, the Murray–Darling Basin Ministerial Council introduced a cap, starting on 1 July 1997. The cap was a limit imposed on the volume of water which could be diverted from the rivers for uses such as dams or irrigation. However, even under this system there were ministerial and regulatory decisions that created further diversions.

In 2007, the Commonwealth intervened to address overallocation, and established the Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). The MDBA was to develop and implement a Basin Plan to include Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) which contributed to a commitment set out in a 2008 amendment to the Commonwealth Water Act 2007.  This commitment was designed for there to be reserves sufficient to ensure critical human needs such as drinking and sanitation.

Notwithstanding attempts by the Commonwealth to intervene, states have retained primary responsibility for regulating the sharing of this community-owned resource. Water laws at the state level will continue to play a critical role in determining whether the system can be restored to health.

In the bulk of the Murray–Darling Basin, which sits within New South Wales, the operative decisions which have real and tangible effects on stakeholders start with the setting of the sustainable diversion limit (SDL) under the Federal Water Act and the making of water sharing plans under the state Water Management Act 2000 (NSW).

These disjointed state and national water reforms have further disenfranchised Aboriginal communities from the right to protect country and waterways and the right to be sustained by both. We have been shut out of all decision making when it comes to protection of these waterways that have so clearly been destroyed by colonisation and the people that perpetrate it.

The Aboriginal communities that line the rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin have, for countless generations, not only protected the waterways but have actively participated in environmental management in a coordinated way with other communities that line the same river. Ceremonies took place across different clan groups for the sole purpose of reinforcing respect for rivers and their protection and giving thanks for the life that they have sustained.

The Aboriginal communities of the Murray–Darling Basin have, for countless generations, not only protected the waterways but have actively participated in coordinated environmental management.

With increased government control of water resources, also came a cultural loss such as the intergenerational learnings of how to manage the freshwater ecosystems to ensure balance of the water itself and the life within it. It is upsetting to think that with each generation, there will be less of us that know the ebbs and flows of nature. From making sure food for the bird life is plentiful during the season where their grasses and grains are under water, to making sure that locational fishing occurs with acute knowledge of the maintenance of the diverse ecosystem, to making sure the young ones know where it is acceptable to swim and which areas not to disturb.

Although we still have water practitioners able to care for and restore our waterways, their ancient expertise is being ignored in favour of corporate interests.

Since then, there have been countless government papers and discussions about how to solve the ‘problem’ of the Murray–Darling Basin and reverse the ecological devastation. It became an election issue and from this sprung the buyback funding. But buyback funding, again, relied on capitalism to resolve the problems created by greed. Sure enough—the irrigators with the water rights refused to sell them back to the government to restore the Murray–Darling Basin.

Over the course of the last decade, the state water authority and the government have siphoned off water for cotton and other large farms as well as coal and gas companies through a complex manipulation of the natural waterways. This practice has drawn claims of corruption, forcing ministers to resign and be referred to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption while the Premier Berejiklian was forced to shake up her cabinet.

In the early months of 2019, the Darling River sustained two mass fish kills with estimates of over one million fish dead. As I saw what little water still sat within the banks of the rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin, I could see the outer edges lined with dark brown murky water and hundreds upon hundreds of fish laying dead and stagnant. The fish kills were a direct result of low levels of dissolved oxygen, high water temperatures and no flow. These ecologically catastrophic events are emblematic of how colonisation and governmental mismanagement has wrought havoc on the Australian ecosystem.

Although we still have water practitioners able to care for and restore our waterways, their ancient expertise is being ignored in favour of corporate interests.

The Darling River has had 15 cease flow events since 2001 which means that the water within the river itself is so low that it does not flow and sits, to be evaporated and has dramatically reduced oxygen levels—making it unsustainable for life within it. With the added impact of drought and the changes brought about by climate change induced heatwaves, bushfires, the reduction of native flora and fauna and water shortages, it is no wonder this waterway is suffering in a devastating way. Native species are threatened, including fish like the Murray Cod, Golden Perch and Bony Bream. A reduction of plant life also means a reduction of the bird life in the region.

The failings are obvious with finger pointing going in all directions except inward which is neither helpful or productive—we need to focus on the facts and solutions.

The fact is that, despite some gali (rain) falling recently, the bagaay (river) on my country and the broader Murray–Darling Basin is in a state of crisis and ecological stress. It is widely acknowledged that the extensive land and water mismanagement foreshadowed above, has resulted in the reversal of natural flow cycles and over allocation of water licences.

While drought is cyclical and a clear problem throughout the eastern parts of the continent, the destruction of the Darling, Namoi and Barwon river system is human-made.

The ecological ignorance of those in power is self-evident. We have a Prime Minister who took a lump of coal to Parliament in February 2017 to tell people not to be afraid, that ‘coal-o-phobia’ would lead to the lights going off around the country. The Prime Minister, in his previous role as treasurer, wanted Australians to ‘put their faith in coal’, an industry that contributes significantly to the global climate catastrophe. At a local level, coal extraction has depleted natural water sources, polluted water tablelands and worsened air quality. The government has also promoted cotton farming, which is unsustainable in the dry Australian climate. Cotton growing requires massive amounts of water and accounts for 26 per cent of water allocations nationwide. Much of this water is siphoned from the Darling River.

First Nations communities have long been the counter voice to the environmental decisions made by governments that have culminated in this ecological disaster.

The human history of Australia spans 80,000 years, but a mere 230 years after the arrival of the first colonisers, we are on the precipice of ecological destruction.

Before colonisation, only sustainable agricultural practices were employed to ensure there was no disruption of the natural ecological balance. Aboriginal people grew foods and grains that could withstand the largely arid climate of Australia including murnong and kangaroo grass. Hunting was done across a large area to ensure there was no reduction of species. Female animals were not targeted. There was no waste—the whole animal was used from the meat for food, the bones for tools and the fur for clothing. My ancestors, in strong connection with weather patterns, would back burn in small areas immediately preceding rains in order to prevent larger fires later. Clan groups would work together for the full length of rivers to make sure it remained in pristine order, able to balance the life within it and the life it sustained on the edges of its banks.

The human history of Australia spans 80,000 years, but a mere 230 years after the arrival of the first colonisers, we are on the precipice of ecological destruction.

The devastation of colonisation and environmentally ignorant decision makers is clear—it is killing our country and will kill us unless we force change and a return to First Nations control of resources—only then will ecological survival be placed above corporate interests. A return to First Nations control means a return to the abovementioned practices where the life of the river itself is of utmost importance.

The conversation needs to change, the water is the giver of life and we need to stop looking at it as a resource to be commoditised and work to protect it—work to protect the life within it. There are practitioners within our communities with the answers—from fire management, land management, water management and biodiversity practices—we do not need to reinvent the wheel, nor do we need another report. ​

We simply need to value life above the almighty dollar and trust the ancient knowledge that sustained and managed this land with respect for over 80,000 years.


​​This piece was commissioned and edited by Jasmin McGaughey, KYD’s First Nations Editor-in-Residence, in partnership with State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing and Editing project.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers can submit pitches to Jasmin here