Murray Darling fish kill
Up to 1 million fish have died in the Darling River system (Image: AAP/ Kate McBride)

Back in October, I started working as a community lawyer in Broken Hill. This involved frequent outreach visits to Menindee and Wilcannia. On my first trip to Menindee, an Indigenous employment mentor took me aside and handed me a bundle of papers.

“You can’t understand the people in this area unless you understand the Darling River and the Menindee Lakes. The cotton farmers up north are taking all our water. This town and other nearby towns are dying.”

We know rural and regional towns are losing people. But what does it mean for a town to die?

I soon discovered this issue was being covered in local papers up and down the Darling River, including Broken Hill’s Barrier Daily Truth. Almost everyone I met mentioned the dying river. And they all blamed the National Party (especially Barnaby Joyce) and cotton farmers up north.

Recently a video of two Menindee locals holding up dead fish went viral. One of the men, a grazier named Rob McBride, is someone you’d expect to be a staunch National Party supporter. Graziers have a history of being on the opposite side of local Indigenous communities in a native title claim. But in this town of 500 people and across the far west of NSW, all interests — graziers, farmers, businesses, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people — have joined forces. The mentor told me: “McBride is a real legend. He’s looking after everyone’s interests. Plus, poisoned water is killing his livestock.”

Then and now

What does an employment mentor do in Menindee? “Just give courses,” they reply.

“There’s no work left locally. We used to have people coming from outside to work on the farms. Ten years ago, they just couldn’t get enough workers. Our fruit used to get sold at the Sydney markets. We had commercial fishing. I think just last year we lost 1000 jobs. We boast our town being the first town on the Darling River; the way the river is going, we’ll be the first off the river. The lakes are dry. The water is so bad that you can’t grow fruit or keep livestock”.

I asked him about climate change. “Mate, it’s man-made. We’ve gone through 10-year droughts, huge droughts. And these lakes got through those droughts without any loss of fish. The only fish that died in the drought were the ones caught at the wrong end of a fishing rod. It’s all greed, government corruption, the government lining the pockets of the wealthy”. He spoke of cotton growers at Cubbie Station in Queensland taking all the water, of foreign ownership.

The lack of work has pushed away not only outside workers. Locals have also moved out to Broken Hill and, from there, to bigger cities. For those left, it isn’t just the economy that’s depressed. The Men’s Shed (known as the Men-in-dee Shed) has no shortage of patrons.

One counsellor in Broken Hill told me, “It’s an absolute man-made disgrace what they’re doing to the river. It’s affecting young children thanks to the stench in the water, the quality of the water, the blue-green algae is killing wildlife and vegetation. People can’t drink that water. They have to ship bottled water in”.

Now in his sixties, the counsellor grew up around the river. “I grew up around Menindee and Wilcannia and those other towns. This river is the lifeblood. I go to Wilcannia on a regular basis. What the poisoned water is doing to that community is devastating. Four years ago, they were having fun jumping off that bridge. The water was flapping over the bridge. It was a happy town. Now it’s full of alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, gambling.”

He spends much of his time counselling depressed farmers. “They’re fed up with what they keep getting told by the National Party. Though I don’t see how a change in government is going to change the powers to let water through the river system. The only one who can actually change things is the current prime minister. I doubt he’ll last as long as my car rego.”

Taking action

Down at one of the local pubs, some people talk vigilante action. “The best thing we can do is take some dynamite and blow up those dam walls on the big cotton farms up north. Flush out the water and let it run down the river”.

At the historic Broken Hill Trades Hall, home to miners’ strikes since before federation, a packed room of farmers, graziers and locals got together to hear NSW opposition leader Michael Daley promise an inquiry into the state of the river. One stood up and said it was a “crime against humanity” and wanted to “put Geoffrey Robertson QC on the case”.

And what about the drought? Surely that must be a cause of the dire water supply.

As the Broken Hill counsellor put it: “Does drought put chemicals in the water? It’s the flow-off from chemicals used in cotton crops that’s killing our fish. And our communities.”