Aboriginal people in Walgett describe the Ngamaay (Namoi) and Baawan (Barwon) rivers as the lifeblood of their community, waterways which generations have cared for and lived on for thousands of years. However, in recent years the rivers have been largely dry with a massive negative impact on community health and wellbeing.

"Well the river is our life: it's like anywhere in the world, if you don't have water you don't have life. The river when I was growing up was a good thing for everybody. Not to say we didn't take things for granted but we respected the waters. It was our life through fishing, drinking, cooking but today there's nothing there. It's really sad. I think to me it's greed by people upstream that don't allow the water to come down" (Community member, quoted in Yuwaya Ngarra-li Community Data Gathering Report, 2019).

The drying up of local rivers is attributed by the Dharriwaa Elders Group to drought and poor management of rivers and water infrastructure by government, which has prioritised the interests of farmers and irrigators over Aboriginal people. The lack of respect and understanding for Aboriginal knowledge of river systems and the perspectives or interests of Aboriginal people is an ongoing legacy of decades of institutional racism and has had disproportionately negative impacts on Aboriginal people in Walgett in a number of ways.

The DEG has long held concerns for the health of surface and ground waters of Walgett. Over its 23 years of operation, DEG has become increasingly aware of the vulnerability of Walgett’s water infrastructure and capacity, the lack of planning for climate change, and the low priority given to Walgett community's water security. Our Caring for Country program works for a vision for Walgett where wellbeing of people and Country is vital, and Walgett children have a better, brighter future. We will link Aboriginal culture and science with western science to renew the health of the river systems and groundwaters. We are developing a collection of policies and requirements for management of waters for the social, economic and cultural development of our community.

As a result of our work we will own and manage water for socio-economic development, the environment and Aboriginal cultural practices and wellbeing.

Group photo taken after tours of the weir and fishway
Group photo taken after tours of the weir and fishway

Dharriwaa Elders Group (“DEG”) hosted a community event 1 November 2023 to celebrate renewed access

to the public road leading to the Barwon River and junction of the Ngamaay and Baawan rivers near the Walgett weir.

We invited Russell Hill and Felicity Rooney of WaterNSW Aboriginal Programs and Engagement Team to partner in this event, who were joined by NSW Public Works and DPI Fisheries. 

DEG Secretary Virginia Robinson opened the day with a Welcome to Country and provided the story of the 20 year effort by DEG to ensure ongoing access to the weir site and river. Aunty Norma Kennedy, DEG River Ranger Project Officer was the MC for the day, and an enthusiastic song and dance performance by Walgett primary school students lifted our spirits. Then DEG’s Stephen Dennis and Walgett Community College Primary School Captain Nyoka Gibbs “opened” the gates for the ceremonial procession of vehicles down to the river. 

The event continued on the bank of the Baawan. Walgett Community College High School students gave a dance performance, Heath Robinson from NSW Public works spoke about the weir and fishway design, Evan Knoll from DPI Fisheries discussed fish passage and DEG’s Caring for Country and Water program collaborator Dr Martin Mallen-Cooper spoke about river flows and the health of the river. Then, while Elders Clem Dodd and Bow Simpson offered their memories of the community’s use of the river at this spot under the shade of the marquees, tours were given of the weir and fishway by Heath and Evan. The weather was perfect – not too hot.

Afterwards everyone was invited to the DEG’s Elders Centre in town for lunch and a yarn – which gave us a chance to thank the school students and their teachers and further build DEG’s growing relationships with WaterNSW, DPI Fisheries and Public Works. We discussed DEG’s plans for an interpretive sign and community amenities that we will work together to bring about so that the Baawan Weir at Walgett is more accessible for the wider Walgett community and its guests in the future.