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Forgotten consultants

Pavel Sraj / cd
September 2, 2013

After massive water shortages, Australia has set out a plan to save its most important river system. Aborigines who have lived for generations in the affected area seem to have been forgotten in the consultation process.

An Aborigine paddles a canoe on a river in Australia
Image: picture alliance/kpa

"If you look at my birth certificate it's says birthplace: 'Riverbank Maroopna,'" Wayne Atkinson explains. The 70 year old is a senior elder of the Yorta Yorta people, an Aboriginal group living on the Murray River, about 200 kilometers north of Melbourne, Australia.

The Goulburn River is a part of Atkinson's identity. He grew up alongside it, fished there with his parents and grandparents. "I'm always so proud that my entry into this world began on the riverbank of the Goulburn River," Atkinson told DW.

Atkinson is one of about 75,000 Aboriginal people who live across the Murray Darling Basin, a huge tangle of rivers that flow from rugged ranges through sunburned plains. The basin is 3,500 kilometers long, extending over an area larger than France and Germany combined.

Dead trees poke out of a brown/green bog (Photo: Environment Victoria)
Widespread deaths of trees - here, the endemic black box tree - are the result of recent droughtsImage: DW/P. Sraj

Atkinson says that now, his local river, and the basin generally, has changed.

"When I was growing up, the river was certainly a lot cleaner than it is now," he told DW. "You could go down and drink straight from the river. You certainly wouldn't do that now."

Farming changes the landscape

Settlers first arrived in the area over a century ago. Soon, they began cultivating crops. But it's been in recent decades that their farming practices have intensified.

"There are 2.2 million people who are reliant on the basin," said Peter Hunter of the Victorian Farmer's Federation in an interview with DW. "We've got huge dairy, rice, grains, cotton and livestock industries which are totally reliant on that system. It's our food bowl."

But, as agriculture in the area has taken off, fertilizers and pesticides have started to flow into the river. The use of those chemicals, as well as excessive water removal via irrigation systems, has had a devastating impact on the rivers, creeks, wetlands and forests in the basin. Ecosystems have also completely changed, with native animals being pushed out.

A bearded man wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt, a gray fedora and a pair of glasses looks off camera while standing in front of trees.
Atkinson's ancestral connection to the river drives him to fight for itImage: DW/P. Sraj

"Of the fish in the Murray River now, 90 percent are introduced species," said Juliet Lefeuvre of Environment Victoria. "So if you catch ten fish from the river, nine of them will be carp or introduced species. Native fish numbers are about 10 percent of what they were," she told DW.

As farms strain the basin, climate change is also affecting water levels. Temperatures are rising and rainfall has dropped by some 40 percent in recent years. That means significantly less water for irrigating crops and increasing competition for resources.

"Our rivers are highly resilient. They can cope with drought or they could cope with water extracted for use," Lefeuvre said. "The trouble is, they can't cope with both at the same time."

Forgotten consultants

In order to combat the recent problems, authorities have developed an inter-governmental agreement, called the Murray Darling Basin plan. The document, which has already been approved by the county's national parliament, offers little mention of Aborigines in its 243 pages.

Instead, the plan focuses on financial incentives to parties who return water back into the river. Due to be rolled out over seven years, the plan is designed to remain flexible however, according to the website of the Murray Darling Basin Authority which oversees the project.

Environmentalists are now urging the government not to forget an important resource right in the basin. "Indigenous Australians have lived alongside our rivers and waterways for tens of thousands of years," said Will Mooney, who works with indigenous communities through the Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental organizations.

"They hold an enormous store of knowledge about the dynamics of these natural systems, about which areas need water when and about which animal species can be best protected, by delivering water flow to certain areas at certain times," he told DW.

Back beside the river, Yorta Yorta elder Wayne Atkinson would like to see a fairer share of water in the basin. He'd like to see a system which equally acknowledges the importance of the environment, the farmers and the many indigenous people who live here.

Standing in short green grass, a white bird with a long, thin orange beak hunts for food. (Photo: Environment Victoria)
The egret is one of the threatened water bird species that depends on floods to breedImage: DW/P. Sraj

"You just wonder, how much worse is the situation going to get?" he said. "Particularly when you see some of the tributary systems. It's like a drainage system, just draining mud and slush."

Beyond helping to provide food for the Yorta Yorta tribe, a healthy river is crucial for another thing: sustaining the indigenous group's cultural and religious needs.

"It's part of our blood, or identity, flowing from all those generations before you who have grown and lived on the river," Atkinson said. "When I'm back on the river I feel a sense of security, because I know that all of my ancestors have been here before me."

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