Food and water security are major areas of concern for the Walgett community, and the Dharriwaa Elders Group and the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service (WAMS) have been working to improve access to fresh food and safe drinking water in Walgett for many years. In 2018, DEG requested UNSW’s assistance with the testing of Walgett drinking water, after community concerns about its quality since the local Shire Council switched the town water source from the river to bore water due to the drought. Tests by Assoc. Professor Martin Andersen of the UNSW Global Water Institute confirmed that the Walgett drinking water was high in sodium. Professor Jacqui Webster from the George Institute for Global Health advised that this is of particular concern for people living with chronic disease. Subsequent advocacy by the Dharriwaa Elders Group saw significant media coverage on this issue, leading to the NSW Government committing to installing reverse osmosis systems to remove salt from Walgett as well as Bourke’s drinking water. The problems with drinking water quality were exacerbated when critical infrastructure failed, and people in Walgett were left without water to drink or operate air conditioning in the middle of summer. In 2019, Yuwaya Ngarra-li held a Food Forum at Walgett high school. The aims of the Food Forum were to:

  • Provide data and research about what is known about food issues relevant to Aboriginal people in Walgett and impacts on long-term health and wellbeing
  • Gather community members and critical services, organisations, and other stakeholders together to discuss food issues in Walgett
  • Facilitate a public forum that is action oriented and focused on positive strategies and evidence-based solutions Staff from local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, council staff, teachers, gardeners, food retailers and other concerned local residents, including Elders from the DEG, raised issues to do with food supply, drinking water, growing food locally and the effect of food choices on physical and mental health.

A report of the Food Forum can be found here, which includes the many suggestions raised throughout the forum of possible strategies and solutions. Since the Food Forum, Yuwaya Ngarra-li has been focused on building its ‘Food and Water for Life Program’, which aims to address food and water insecurity issues, poor drinking water, costly and poor quality food available in Walgett, and the associated health and wellbeing issues in Walgett.

The urgency of this work was highlighted after Walgett’s only supermarket burnt down and local food shortages during COVID. Since 2021, the Food and Water for Life Program has been boosted by a five year NHMRC grant (2021-2025) Food and Water for Life: co-creation and evaluation of sustainable innovations to strengthen food and water security with collaborators from UNSW and the George Institute for Global Health. In collaboration with WAMS, we seek to enable community-led sustainable food and water initiatives that will be run by and employ Aboriginal people, and ensure healthy drinking water and fresh nutritious food produced locally for years to come.

The WAMS and DEG team speak to the Next Water 23 water industry conference February 2023.
The WAMS and DEG team speak to the Next Water 23 water industry conference February 2023. (Photo courtesy Sera Young).

In February 2023 WAMS and DEG staff travelled to Sydney to begin our advocacy for the NSW Government to bring low sodium drinking water to Walgett and greater capability to Walgett Shire Council

for its drinking water management. We made presentations to public health experts at The George Institute for Global Health, and to water industry experts at the Next Water 23 Conference. 

Then in April 2023, the NSW Minister for Water Rose Jackson MLC responded to our advocacy and visited Walgett. Protocols required the local independent MP to be present, and his community supporters from the previous NSW Government's LDM who support irrigation and the conditions that have brought Walgett to this dire situation of water and food insecurity. DEG and its advisors in its Yuwaya Ngarrali partnership responded as best we could to keep our messages prioritised. We are still working to support the Minister to confront the decisonmakers in her department and in NSW Health who currently drive Walgett's drinking water situation. 

To restore community confidence in drinking water from domestic supply, we believe that the following needs to occur:

  1. Walgett Shire Council (“WSC”) must be supported to install and operate a water treatment plant (for the township and Namoi Village) that works equally well on river or ground water similar to the unit in Bourke, and that delivers a sodium level that is no greater than 20mg/L. A significant amount of residents have high levels of diagnosed chronic disease, and we believe even higher levels of undiagnosed chronic disease. We believe this is a necessary and reasonable request. This will require the WSC to design, construct and operate a sustainable Reverse Osmosis (“RO”) brine waste disposal solution, again similar to the solution adopted in Bourke.
  2. WSC must be supported to provide potable, chlorinated low sodium drinking water to the homes of Gingie Village.
  3. WSC must be funded to operate these water treatment plants long-term as we argue that the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal of NSW (“IPART”) should not allow WSC to increase rates to delivery community water expectations, and Walgett cannot raise the funds needed from its rates base.
  4. WSC must be adequately resourced to operate the existing fluoridation system and administer fluoride.
  5. WSC must be supported to report on the full suite of water quality parameters listed in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines to residents quarterly, provide a customer update as required by IPART for metropolitan water agencies and provide a public education campaign to explain the quality of Walgett’s drinking water.