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. The advice from Professor Jacqui Webster from the George Institute for Global Health was that the Walgett drinking water was high in sodium, which 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 has been 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.

New water-efficient WAMS Community garden launch December 2020
UNSW Engineering staff and students from the ChallENG program collaborated with DEG and WAMS to develop irrigation solutions and shade for the WAMS community garden. The garden’s water efficient microfarm was launched in December 2020 and is providing ongoing access to healthy food for clients of WAMS’ chronic disease program.

Dry Barwon River - challenging food security
With collaborators from the UNSW Global Water Institute we are investigating the suitability of Walgett’s alluvial reservoir for providing water to other garden locations in the town. We are scoping a community meals initiative and through the School Reference Group advocated for daily free nutritious meals to be served in the Walgett Primary and High Schools - which in 2023 are being rolled out.

Walgett IGA fire 5 June 2019

Our food initiatives are working to provide sustainable long term food security to Walgett.
Our community is challenged from losing river foods from our local food options - due to bad water management in the Northern Murray Darling Basin. We learnt a lot when the only supermarket in town burnt down in June 2019, about how vulnerable our local food is and how food supply systems contribute to this vulnerability.

Walgett Gardener's Network
This part of the program is supporting Walgett gardeners to share resources and co-ordinate planting and harvesting of local foods. Compost and native grains are other initaitives being seeded in this initiative. We provide gardeners with the opportunity to meet and yarn productively, give them tips, gardening gloves, seeds & other gifts and encourage the strengthening of their networks.

The WAMS, DEG amd TGI team conducting an audit of the Walgett IGA supermarket

With WAMS staff and Walgett IGA we are producing a variety of healthy supermarket initiatives. The Meal of the Month and WAMS Choice promotes healthier choice items on the supermarket shelves. Meal of the Month promotes a healthy affordable meal and provides taste tests in Walgett IGA. Raffles give away the ingredients of the Meal of the Month, and contestants are asked to cook up the Meal of the Month and display if on Facebook for more prizes.

journalist Carly Williams and participants in her story on ABC 7.30 re Walgett's drinking water
Yuwaya Ngarra-li is continuing work to ensure safe drinking water for the Walgett community. While a reverse osmosis facility was installed in Walgett in May 2020, it was closed in September 2020 and there are ongoing concerns about the high sodium levels in Walgett’s drinking water. A Briefing Paper on Walgett’s drinking water management explains the issue. WAMS and DEG with Yuwaya Ngarrali partners Professor Jacqui Webster of The George Institute for Global Health UNSW and Professor Greg Leslie from the Global Water Institute UNSW trained up a research team and undertook a groundbreaking survey of food and water (in)security in Walgett in March 2022.

The DEG team and collaborators considering evidence
We are investigating the relevant laws, policies and guidelines for food and water security in Walgett including looking at the relevant legislation and government agencies responsible. We are also talking to key stakeholders to understand what we can learn from past Walgett food and water crises and how we can be better respond in the future. Once we have a better knowledge of the systems that cause Walgett's food and water insecurity, we will embark on programs of advocacy equipped with the evidence, knowledge and decisionmaking we need to influence and make change.