Voice of Real Australia: Hearing and heeding the voices of Forgotten River

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from ACM, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend.

In the summer of 2018-2019, when a million fish died near the town of Menindee in outback NSW, tearful landholders along that stretch of the Darling River switched their pumps in reverse, desperately trying to save them by putting water back into the river.

They were not successful. Up north, cotton irrigators had a good year.

As long as humans have settled by rivers, there has been conflict between upstream and downstream. My neighbours upstream are thieves, and those downstream are wasteful. Only here, on this bend in the river, do we treat the water with the respect it deserves.

Along the Darling, the story is the same. Upstream and downstream, it seems, are further apart than the city and the bush.

In recent days the ACM network has launched Forgotten River, a multimedia series for its subscribers. It introduces the people of the Darling - the Indigenous Barkindji who call the river the Barka, the fifth-generation farmers toiling beside its banks and the townsfolk who rely on its water.

To the Barkindji, the Barka's snaking channel marks the course of the Naatji - the rainbow serpent. It has sustained cultures and communities for thousands of years.

Today, the water is finally flowing again after years of drought. But the people of the Darling say the river is in danger.

They fear their lifeline will soon run dry again - emptied by irrigators, water traders and floodplain harvesters. The water on which they rely has become a commodity at the expense of the environment it sustains.

They say that unless rules governing the river change, another ecological disaster like the Menindee fish kills may be just around the bend.

And they want Australia to hear their stories, and to help them save the Darling just as Tasmania's Franklin River was saved in the 1980s.

So, why should every Australian care about this 1500 kilometre waterway wending through the otherwise flat, barren plains of far-west NSW?

Here's why: the Darling is a critical artery in Australia's biggest and most important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. Stretching across four states and the ACT, the basin supplies water for 3.6 million people.

It's where 40 per cent of the nation's agricultural produce is grown, including 100 per cent of our rice, 96 per cent of our cotton and 74 per cent of our grapes - a total annual output of food and fibre worth $24 billion.

The basin, about the size of France and Spain put together, is also home to 40 First Nations, 95 threatened species and 16 wetlands Australia is bound by international treaty to protect.

So, yes, every Australian has a stake in the cultural, environmental and economic value of the Darling and the Murray-Darling Basin.

Through Forgotten River's podcasts, videos, articles and pictures, we're proud to be giving the forgotten people of the Darling/Barka a voice.

We need to heed their rising voices.

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