In December 2020, Walgett celebrated the launch of Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service's water efficient micro-farm.
Walgett is a remote town in northern NSW. 7 years of severe drought, management of the Barwon and Namoi Rivers, the loss of the only supermarket by fire and then the Covid-19 pandemic, have heightened issues of food and water security. This landmark project shows community-led development in action and may offer inspiration for other remote communities experiencing similar issues and wanting to prepare for climate change and improve food security and nutrition.
Impact Engineering students from UNSW, under the supervision of Professor Greg Leslie from the Global Water Institute, have been visiting Walgett as part of Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership between the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) and UNSW for several years. Successive groups of students have tackled the idea of a drought proof community garden, following suggestions and ideas from gardeners and other experts in Walgett about what they think might work in the unusually hot and dry conditions.
The DEG had identified the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service Garden as a key community asset for providing healthy, fresh food locally. Until drought hit, and the rivers ran dry, the garden had been producing food boxes for people with chronic illnesses. Severe water restrictions in 2018 led to loss of the garden. A community Food Forum held by Yuwaya Ngarra-li in 2018 identified the need for the garden to be productive again. With food no longer being available from the rivers and the loss of the community supermarket, healthy food had become increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain. Food insecurity was compounded in Walgett when the pandemic hit, and communities across the North West suffered shortages of essentials due to the disruption to supply chains.
After some trial and error, the students hit on using Biofilta garden pods, which trap water in a reservoir underneath each bed, as a way of growing a low water use garden. A number of trial beds were installed and successful veggie crops have been harvested.
The DEG applied for an Increasing Resilience to Climate Change grant from the NSW Government to purchase and install more beds, and a UNSW alumni donor supplied funding to prepare the garden area and for the students to begin working out how to build appropriate shade structures. Due to COVID restrictions, testing and building of the polytunnel shade structure designs took place on campus at UNSW. The beauty of the design is that it can be made inexpensively from easily available materials and local staff can continue to construct them as needed, so they can be part of the expansion of the garden in the future.
The students made a Covid safe ‘bubble visit’, facilitated by WAMS in late September 2020. This meant they were tested as soon as they arrived in town and did not commence work until they had tested negative, and that WAMS provided them with self-contained accommodation to stay in. They were able to help WAMS staff with the installation process in the garden and demonstrate the beds to DEG staff who had also purchased some for community wellbeing work to be undertaken by Orana Haven’s Walgett Aboriginal Hub project. Since this visit, all 48 beds and shade structures have been installed and are just days from a successful harvest.
The project was funded by the NSW Government in association with WAMS, UNSW Global Water Institute and Yuwaya Ngarra-li / Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG). We also acknowledge the generous contributions of UNSW Alumnus received through UNSW Philanthropy.
The next phase of the garden development was the addition of a specially designed propagation area - a further step toward ongoing self-sufficiency. A team of students and volunteer university staff led by Mel Wimbourne built a nursery shed they designed. Donors were found to support the project and although build time was tight, lots of thought and planning has gone into the design.
The launch of the drought proof garden was held Thursday December 10th. Among those attending were senior staff from WAMS, Elders from the DEG and Impact Engineering Students from UNSW. Both Professor Greg Leslie, the Director of the UNSW Global Water Institute, and Professor Stephen Foster, the Dean of UNSW Engineering, were in Walgett working on a wide range of collaborations with the DEG and were also be at the launch.Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service's CEo Christine Corby OAM hosted the launch. Walgett Shire Council General Manager Michael Urquhart spoke as did John Clements for Roy Butler MP for Barwon NSW.
Dharriwaa Elders Group looks forward to continuing to collaborate with WAMS and Yuwaya Ngarrali partners in further developing Walgett's food security.