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 Namoi River completely dry - river foods wiped out

The Food and Water for Life project is working to provide sustainable long term food security to Walgett. Our community is challenged from losing river foods

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. DEG and WAMS moved quickly to provide food relief and to encourage IGA to build again in Walgett. This experience meant we could move quickly during the Covid pandemic to work with the local IGA, donors, local council, WAMS and others to ensure that people isolating, close contacts and those struggling due to the impacts of COVID, particularly during the long lockdown, had access to food and water supplies.
In March 2022, with our colleagues from the George Institute for Global Health, we surveyed Walgett community members about their experiences of food and water security. The results of these surveys are still to be published, but key findings were published in February 2023 and are shocking. In the Food and Water for Life Project we are working to understand what planning Walgett needs to do to prepare for the future food security shocks that will surely come, now that the Climate Emergency deepens, and we are still suffering from the loss of river foods. In this work we are also examining the current official emergency responses which we find inadequate so that we can recommend law reform. DEG and WAMS have made many constructive submissions to the NSW parliament and the Commonwealth parliament, and the UN Food Summit of 2021 that share our learnings.