At Menindee, the lifeblood of the people has turned to bitter sludge

·5-min read

The massive fish kills of 2019, which saw a million fish float to the surface of the Darling-Baaka River, are no longer just a catastrophic ecological anomaly but a sustained and “recurring nightmare” for far-west New South Wales.

That’s what one Menindee resident, Dick Arnold, told me this week, as we waited around the town of 551 people for the state government to respond to the crisis. For the second time in four years the community has been smacked in the face with blatant evidence that the river they depend on is painfully sick. It is usually hard to stop people talking about water in Menindee, but for many the recent fish deaths mark a tipping point in the ongoing struggle for a healthy river that is too painful to discuss.

Related: Darling-Baaka River Menindee cleanup begins six days after mass fish kill

They have been watching the gradual decline of a healthy river over the last 30 years. As a journalist who first met the town of Menindee three and a half years ago after the 2019 fish kill, I have found it increasingly difficult to find people who can stomach discussing the river.

“It’s really bad and it breaks my heart,” 85-year-old Barkandji elder Evelyn Bates told me this week. Another Barkandji woman, 81-year-old Patsy Quayle, said: “I’m so angry I can’t express how I feel … the river is devastated.” They are exhausted, as is the rest of the community. What is the point in talking when nothing has changed?

Barkandji elder Norman O’Donnell didn’t even want to get out of his car and look at the river. “You get sick of speaking the same thing over and over again, nothing ever gets done, it never will, the government will do what they want to do,” he said.

These Barkandji elders have lived on the river their entire lives, they are the cultural leaders in the community. As traditional owners they have more than 30,000 years of connection to the river that they call the lifeblood of the people. Every aspect of their vitality, culture, stories and history is connected to the health of the river. The river and the people are not distinct from one another: when the river hurts, the people hurt.

There isn’t a person in Menindee who isn’t disgusted by the state of the river, and critically aware that no matter their cultural connection, they are utterly dependent on it.

Many have responded to its declining health by creating a mental and physical distance from the river. They are turning away from the river, visiting it less, sharing fewer stories, because it has become too big of a heartache to bear.

Some learned to swim in the river, some taught their kids to fish in it, and everyone drinks it.

The colourful and creative activism following the 2019 fish kills now seems like a distant memory of a time when the community believed getting the right attention might lead to change. Then, there were hand-painted banners and buses reading “Our River Our Life”, “Not Drought, Greed” and “Government Mismanagement”. Sunset Strip resident Barry Stone organised three bridge blockades in Wilcannia that stopped traffic for five hours, in a community demand to end water trading.

An independent scientific panel investigated the 2019 fish kills, and the federal government committed $70m toward environmental and water management, restocking rivers with native fish and providing better metering in the northern basin. Little practical change has resulted.

Now, the mood is different. Those who will talk about the river begin sentences with phrases like “government mismanagement”. They speak of greed and corruption.

Local activists like Ross Leddra, the president of the Darling River Action Group, and Rob Mcbride from Tolarno Station, speak tirelessly with politicians and media about the river, to the point it has become a self-appointed full-time job. Reading through Sustainable Diversion Limit reports, basin plans, floodplain harvesting inquiries and Better Baaka proposals, and endlessly inviting politicians to visit the Baaka and the Menindee lakes, is probably not what they envisioned for the second half of their lives.

Related: ‘All this here will kill this river’: traditional owners grieve for the Darling-Baaka after mass fish death

The water which filled the lakes after the 2019 fish kills eased some of the trauma. For a time people were catching fish and taking their kids camping and boating. Then the flood waters arrived late last year, and the community was left feeling powerless once again as low-lying parts of town flooded.

Over and over again Menindee residents say they have not been not consulted and don’t feel included in the decisions that affect their survival. It’s a point Jan Fennell made at a town meeting on Tuesday, before challenging officials to drink the town water.

“Do you talk to one another, or do you just wait till it goes to shit and then come here and tell us what you are going to do?” she asked. “Have you ever considered all you mob getting together right across the board and having a working group here together in Menindee, having some local people have some input? This is why everyone is so frustrated and so angry.”

Everybody in the lower Darling is waiting for someone to start doing their job. I spent the week waiting for the fish excavation that was set to begin on Tuesday afternoon, but did not actually get into the water until Thursday. Two days of chasing excavating contractors, NSW police, and fire and rescue workers.

Meanwhile the few remaining dead fish have already decayed and sunk to the bottom of the Darling-Baaka River. The lifeblood of the people is now a bitter sludge.