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 Community College High School. The aims of the Food Forum were to:
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.
Since the Food Forum, Yuwaya Ngarra-li has been focused its ‘Food and Water for Life Program’, which aims to address food and water insecurity issues, poor drinking water, costly and poor quality food, and the associated health and wellbeing issues in Walgett.
UNSW Engineering staff and students 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. Since then, WAMS and DEG have been working to increase the productivity of the garden to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables. In 2022, YN published a briefing paper on Sustaining the WAMS Community Garden in order to share what the program has learnt with other communities.
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, YN seeks 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.
In 2022, with colleagues from the George Institute for Global Health and UNSW, YN surveyed 251 Walgett community members about their experiences of food and water security. They found that:
Yuwaya Ngarra-li has been working to ensure safe drinking water for the Walgett community since 2019, when UNSW researchers tested Walgett's bore water and found the sodium content was around 300mg sodium/litre, almost twice the accepted levels for palatability in the Australian Government's drinking water guidelines and 15 times the levels recommended for people with hypertension. While a reverse osmosis facility was constructed in Walgett in May 2020 after DEG and WAMS advocacy on this issue, it was closed in September 2020 due to technical problems, and there have been ongoing concerns about the high sodium levels and health implications. A briefing paper on Walgett's drinking water management was published in February 2023, and following widespread media attention of the community survey results and the health and cost burden of poor water quality, new NSW Water Minister Rose Jackson visited Walgett in April 2023 and committed to a long-term solution. The town water supply was subsequently switched to river water in May 2023, however it was again switched back to bore water in June 2023 due to other issues. The NSW Government continues to work with the Shire Council to improve technical capacity around Walgett's water supply. Meanwhile, DEG is installing a bespoke Reverse Osmosis chilled drinking water system in its main street shorpfront to test improved accessibility of quality drinking water.
With WAMS staff and Walgett IGA, DEG is developing a variety of healthy supermarket initiatives, including a Meal of the Month promotion and WAMS Choice of healthier items on the supermarket shelves.
This supports local gardeners to share resources and coordinate planting and harvesting.
Due to the long-term community-led efforts to improve food and water security in Walgett through the Food and Water for Life program, DEG was able to move quickly during COVID in 2020 and 2021, and then during flooding in 2022, to work with the local IGA, donors, local council, WAMS and others to ensure that people had access to urgently needed food and water supplies.
With collaborators from the UNSW Global Water Institute, DEG is investigating the suitability of Walgett's alluvial reservoir for providing water to other garden locations in the town. They are also scoping a community meals initiative, and through the School Reference Group continue to advocate for daily, free, nutritous meals to be served in Walgett schools. YN is also investigating the relevant laws, policies and guidelines for food and water security in Walgett, documenting what can be learnt from past food and water crises and how to better respond in the future.