In late June I visited the small town of Walgett in north-west New South Wales so that I could see firsthand the impact the drought, the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling and climate change has had on the people of that community.
For more than a year Walgett has been forced to rely on bore water because the rivers that people have relied on—the Namoi and the Barwon—have run dry for the first time in living memory due to the extreme drought, climate change and the Government's disastrous management of the Murray-Darling Basin.
Many argue that the bore water that residents have been forced to rely upon as drinking water is not fit for human consumption. The bore water contains high levels of sodium that exceed the aesthetic taste limit set by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. These guidelines have no health-based sodium limit, but residents of the town told me that drinking tap water led to stomach aches and potentially kidney stones. Some people even showed me the rashes that had developed from showering in the bore water. High sodium levels in drinking water is affecting regional towns across New South Wales and is having a drastic impact on the health of many residents. Too much salt in the diet increases blood pressure, and that is one of the key contributors to premature death from heart disease and stroke in Australia. Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted as they already suffer high rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease—all conditions that are made far worse by increased salt consumption.
Locals have taken to buying bottled water because of the health risks. At $2 to $3 a bottle, relying upon bottled water places strain upon a community that is already struggling, which means often hard choices need to be made between clean drinking water and other household essentials. This situation became even more difficult when Walgett's sole grocery store, the local IGA, burnt down, which meant bottled water became even more difficult and expensive to come by. The town has now become reliant on community groups who truck in bottled water and groceries to donate to the community, providing clean drinking water where the State Government has failed to do so. However, what I saw and heard during my visit to Walgett was how resilient the community is.
I met with the elders from the Dharriwaa Elders Group who told me that I was the first politician who had come to meet them since this water crisis hit the town. One of the members of the group, Vanessa Hickey, showed me the equipment that she used to test the quality of drinking water in the town and the drone equipment that she uses to monitor conditions in the Namoi and Barwon rivers. The Dharriwaa Elders Group also have taken a lead in distributing donations of food and water to the 1,100 residents of Walgett who are relying upon them. They use their deep community ties and knowledge to make sure each household gets the food and water it needs to survive. That is all done on a volunteer basis.
The Dharriwaa elders told me how they felt that they had been abandoned by the Government long before the drought, and that this water crisis was the latest in a long line of betrayals. They told me how they felt intimidated by the construction of a police and community youth club at their local primary school with a permanently stationed police officer. They also told me they had a local community-organised youth club that was far more preferable to them, but that was rejected.
They told me how locals are imprisoned for possession of small quantities of cannabis while the town is ravaged by the ice epidemic. There are no treatment or harm minimisation services within travelling distance of Walgett, which means those who are dependent on drugs have no option when they seek help. It is unacceptable that the residents of Walgett have had to rely on the goodwill of community groups for clean drinking water and groceries. It is unacceptable that residents cannot expect the same quality of life and quality of health that is provided to the residents of Sydney. The State Government has well and truly failed the town of Walgett.