Caring for Country

Elders on Narran River at Angledool with YN Water Co-ordinator
Aboriginal people in Walgett describe the Namoi and Barwon rivers as the lifeblood of their community, waterways which generations have cared for and lived on for thousands of years. However, the poor state of the rivers in recent years has had 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

Addressing water infrastructure concerns

The degradation of local rivers is attributed by the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) to climate change 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 20 years of operation, the 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 that the views of the Walgett community are given in planning for water security.

Our Caring for Country program works for a vision for Walgett where wellbeing of people and Country is vital, and the Walgett community has a better, brighter future. YN is linking Aboriginal culture and science with western science to renew the health of the river systems and groundwaters. The partnership is developing a collection of policies and requirements for management of waters for the social, economic and cultural development of the Walgett community.

Virginia Robinson participating in Swedish International Water Institute World Water Week Indigenous Nations forum.

Advocacy and education

The Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) is telling the true story of the rivers by sharing the knowledge of the Elders; exchanging knowledge with trusted collaborators and partners; researching books and journals; writing and publishing articles; drawing out the knowledge of the river from Walgett's languages; building the knowledge of the Walgett community about Aboriginal Cultural Values; hosting discussions, workshops and conversations about matters important to Walgett from local to global reach; preparing responses to government policy; and developing policy.

The DEG is working to influence policy processes around river management, with sustained efforts around ensuring debate and scrutiny around floodplain harvesting at the state level. The Elders' and the DEG's engagement has included working with representatives of all political parties, testifying in Parliament, advocating through the media to bring attention to key concerns, and building relationships with other Aboriginal communities up and down the rivers as well as influential bodies such as the Wentworth Group, who invited the DEG into its discussions.

The DEG has also been connected to and shared its work at Stockholm International Water Institute World Water Week and were highlighted in the report of the UN Rapporteur. They will shortly be published in an international journal with other Indigneous water warriors from around the world.

Surface and groundwaters

The DEG is working to restore flowing water to rivers by first describing the elements required of healthy surface and groundwaters and the aquatic life they sipport around Walgett. They are obtaining accurate information about the amount of water taken for irrigation; advocating to ensure governments honour the principles of the NSW Water Management Act 2000, and limit groundwater extraction and limit water extraction to the 1994 cap; developing projects to improve the water quality of rivers and groundwaters; establishing formal relationships with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office and the NSW Environmental Water Managers; working with the UNSW Global Water Institute on groundwater research to gain a better understanding of the interactions between groundwater and the Baawan and Ngamaay Rivers near Walgett; and researching regulatory conditions allowing lakebed cropping and working to restore lakes in the Walgett/Narran floodplains.

Access to waters

The DEG is working with the Environmental Defenders Office, Walgett Shire Council, landholders and the Local Land Service to dissolve current barriers to access for Walgett's community to rivers, lakes and springs.

Protection of Aboriginal places

The DEG is working towards the gazettal of a number of water places with High Aboriginal Cultural and Environmental Values using the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW) provisions.


The DEG is working to list the whole Dharriwaa wetland system as a Ramsar site and protect the watering of the Ramsar-listed Gwydir and Macquarie Marsh wetlands.

Government inquiries and investigations

The Walgett Aboriginal community has called for a Royal Commission into management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Ngarrangarra-li Walaaybaa Rangers (Look after Home Country Rangers)

After many years of advocacy, the DEG secured funding for a ranger program—a long-held aim of the Elders for the local community to care for and restore health to the local rivers and Country. This funding from the National Indigenous Australians Agency has enabled the recruitment and training of local rangers, and is enhancing access to Country for the Aboriginal community and working towards longer-term goals of protecting cultural and environmental heritage. The Ranger team is training with Elders, scientists, TAFE and collaborators; identifying and protecting turtles around Walgett; identifying and documenting waterbirds that rely on Walgett waters; removing weirs on the Narran and the Baawan rivers; rebuilding the fishtraps on the Narran River; negotiating relationships with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, WaterNSW, NSW DPE Water, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and NSW Fisheries; monitoring fish passage and fish health at Walgett; and supporting Walgett fish ladder operations.

Through the DEG's efforts, they aim to own and manage water for socio-economic development, the environment and Aboriginal cultural practices and wellbeing.