Murray-Darling watergate
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

The town that I call home is the archetype of outback mining cities littered across Australia. Broken Hill may have once been the crowning jewel of the mining boom, but now it is a stark reminder of how development and human greed has scarred the landscape and poisoned our future.

Even though I now live in Darwin, I am frequently welcomed back in Broken Hill with the familiar small-town friendliness, vast skies, red earth, and a climate drier than the locals’ humour. I am greeted by those who, behind their laid-back attitude, are becoming increasingly desperate. These people have witnessed the slow and steady destruction of their homes, their livelihoods and their environment. We need to take heed of this warning and ensure it does not repeat itself across Australia.

The Murray-Darling crisis is far from a recent development. In a series of disastrous events, NSW residents have been exposed to irreparable degradation of their 130 million-year-old river system. The Menindee mass fish-kills, which brought the mainstream media’s attention to the region, is a direct result of the ongoing tug-of-water between the big players of the cotton industry, and citizens who rely completely on the river for survival.

I’ve seen waterholes dry up, and river banks crack. I’ve seen businesses that have passed through generations close up shop, and whole economies shrivel — all because the lifeblood to our town has been squeezed into a trickle. To watch the environment that is your home go into such radical decline is very hard, especially when the impacts hit the people and the families that you grew up with and love.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan failure has placed 77,000 km of rivers and wetlands in critical danger. Maladministration and gross negligence of the region accelerated the crisis to a point where it’s necessary for environmental considerations to surpass political agendas. The sad fact is that even if we are to see radical action, it may be too little, too late.

Instead of recognising the extent of the damage and taking ownership, elected officials have shown just how badly they have let us all down. They are in a free-for-all frenzy, pointing fingers and appointing blame on each other for their collective inaction. The same voices proclaiming that something needs to be done to remedy the issue are the same voices that were silent when the seed of the problem was planted.

It alarms me to witness similar patterns emerging in the Northern Territory. The Gunner government put fracking on the agenda for the last election, claiming that any expansion relied “on the social approval of the people of the Northern Territory”. Once elected, the government retracted this stance, lifting the moratorium and claiming that new environmental laws would monitor and control the industry. Nearly a year on, with consultation continuing over these new laws, the heavy hand of the mining industry is whittling away the much needed protections for water resources in the Top End.

Iconic rivers of the Territory — the Daly and the Roper — are at risk of the same ecological mismanagement that we are currently witnessing in NSW. You only have to look as far as the McArthur River to see recent examples of mining contamination and environmental impacts in the Territory’s waterways. Without strong and effective environmental laws, we will be in danger of putting our precious waterways at risk for the sake of a handful of big multinationals pushing a quick profit — while we’re left to clean up the mess.

The outrage currently spreading across Australia in the past month over the disaster unfolding across the Murray-Darling basin is a welcome sight to my friends and family, who have been calling for government action for decades — calls that have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. My only hope is that the lessons are learned early, and that we do not have a similar media story about the Territory in another 20 years.

The rivers, wildlife and landscapes of the Territory are unique and unparalleled, and they deserve proper protections. The Territory is my home now. I don’t want to witness a repeat of the mistakes that I saw on the Murray Darling.

Ava Wilmore is currently studying a Bachelor of Clinical Science and Doctor of Medicine at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, and was born in Broken Hill NSW.

Peter Fray

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