Community-led solutions are being developed to address a water crisis and food insecurity concerns affecting residents of Walgett in north-western NSW, according to a report released today by the Dharriwaa Elders Group.
The report documents “the massive impact of the drying up of the Barwon and Namoi rivers”, health concerns raised by high sodium levels in local drinking water, and the high costs of healthy foods locally.
Below, Dr Ruth McCausland, Director of Research and Evaluation, Yuwaya Ngarra-li, explains how the Dharriwaa Elders are working “to restore a robust belonging to thriving families, community and country, while making our place in the nation and sharing our learning with other communities”.
If you would like to support this work, donations can be made here.
Ruth McCausland writes:
The remote town of Walgett in north-west NSW has been in the news lately, most recently after its only supermarket burnt down earlier this month. The next closest supermarket is 80 kilometres away.
This followed Walgett losing its water supply and use of evaporative air conditioners during a heatwave in January this year after a breakdown at the local water treatment plant.
Media coverage at the time led to donations of bottled water from people all around the country along with outrage at the precarity of Walgett’s water supply.
Both crises have drawn broader attention to water and food security issues that local community members have been concerned about for some time.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group, now coordinating a food and water appeal, had raised these concerns as an urgent priority for investigation and action through its ‘Yuwaya Ngarra-li’ partnership with UNSW.
In 2018, food and nutrition were raised in the community data gathering interviews that inform Yuwaya Ngarra-li’s planning and evaluation, when community members talked about cultural knowledge of foods and food preparation skills passed on for generations that have been eroded over time.
The cost of living, including the high costs of buying fresh fruit and vegetables locally, was raised as a major problem. Many identified the implications of the drying up of local rivers and the related quality of the local drinking water as significant concerns.
Seeking sustainable solutions
Walgett sits at the junction of the Namoi and Barwon rivers. Community members describe those rivers as their ‘lifeblood’. For the past 18 months, the town’s drinking water has been drawn from the Great Artesian Basin after the rivers dried up.
Last year, the Dharriwaa Elders asked UNSW water engineers to test the town’s drinking water after concerns about its quality. Dr Jacqui Webster, Head of Advocacy and Policy Impact and Director of World Health Organization Collaborating Centre on Salt Reduction at The George Institute for Global Health, found the sodium levels in the drinking water were 15 times the recommended amount for people with hypertension and other chronic health conditions.
This is a matter of significant and urgent concern to the CEO of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service and others, given the high rates of chronic disease in Walgett.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group have been working with the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service and others, including UNSW water engineers, to develop community-led solutions and advocate for long-term sustainable solutions to the water crisis.
While the NSW Government is reportedly considering installing a desalination system and providing regular packaged water deliveries, the community is still largely relying on deliveries of packaged water from donations transported by individuals.
The Dharriwaa Elders Group has engaged casual employees to deliver water – an unplanned expense.
There has never been enough packaged water delivered for the whole community.
Those who could afford to have been buying water from Walgett’s IGA, but now the supermarket has burnt down this option is no longer available – and was never a sustainable or equitable solution for providing safe drinking water.
The Walgett Food Forum
Today a report from a Food Forum hosted by the Dharriwaa Elders Group at the Walgett Community College as part of its Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership is released publicly.
The aims of the Yuwaya Ngarra-li 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
- Discuss positive action and strategies and evidence-based solutions to inform long-term planning around food, nutrition and water.
The Food Forum was held in the Community Hub of Walgett Community College and attended by around 50 people.
These included Walgett Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations members and staff including from the DEG, WAMS, Walgett Local Aboriginal Land Council (WLALC), the Walgett Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) and the emerging men’s group; staff from Koolyangarra Pre-School; and a number of Elders and interested community members as well as the managers of Supa IGA Walgett and Café 64; the town’s three community gardeners; school principals, Aboriginal Education Assistants and canteen cooks from Walgett Community College; staff from NSW Family and Community Services (FACS) and Legal Aid NSW.
The Yuwaya Ngarra-li team and researchers from the George Institute for Global Health produced community briefing materials for Forum attendees which provided:
- Background data and research on food issues for Aboriginal people in remote areas
- A compilation of recent Walgett LGA health data
- Results of a family food basket survey where we compared the cost of Walgett IGA staples with the same items sourced in a Sydney metropolitan area (see image below).
Secretary of the Dharriwaa Elders Group Virginia Robinson welcomed Forum guests. She set the scene for the Forum by reflecting on what she ate growing up.
She spoke of how colonisation devastated nutrition for Aboriginal people and that we now realise it was a big mistake to force Aboriginal people to eat differently from the way they always had. Virginia asked that the Forum consider that Elders were brought up on rations and today Aboriginal people still have the habits from those ration days, enjoying Johnny cakes, damper and tea. She also reflected on the reality that Aboriginal people living locally can no longer supplement their diets with bush foods, fishing and hunting as their ancestors used to.
Walgett Community College students Charmaine Doolan, Delta Swan and Abbey Ashby followed the Elders’ official Welcome, giving a detailed and considered Acknowledgement in Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay Language and reflecting on how Country is precious to the Walgett Aboriginal community:
Our land grounds us, our flora heals us, our fauna connects us, our culture is strong.”
The first presentation by Christine Corby, CEO of the Aboriginal Medical Service, gave context and history to the issue of food, nutrition and water in Walgett from an Aboriginal health standpoint. Christine Corby concluded her presentation by setting out WAMS’s hopes for the outcomes of the Food Forum to include a five-year plan around:
- Improving the health of the Namoi and Barwon rivers
- Improving the quality of the domestic water supply
- Expanding the community gardens and backyard gardens
- Employment of Environmental Health Officers
- Improving the fresh healthy food options in the school canteens, cafes and food outlets
- Increasing health and wellbeing-oriented practices including exercise and a focus on mental wellbeing
- The need for a Royal Commission into the management and use of water in the region.
A ‘Food in Walgett – Past, Present and Future’ panel was facilitated by Wendy Spencer, Dharriwaa Elders Group & Walgett Yuwaya Ngarra-li Project Manager, with Clem Dodd (DEG Speaker), Kim Sullivan (Orana Haven/Weigelli Aboriginal Hub drug and alcohol case worker and DEG Elders support worker) and community member and experienced cook Robyn Morgan.
The panel began by discussing how food is influenced by history, access and affordability, with reflections on the impact of the drying up of the river on what people eat and drink.
Concerns were also raised about people going hungry in Walgett, and the therapeutic role of gardening was discussed.
Changing the food environment
Gamilaraay woman Tracy Hardy, PhD student and accredited nutritionist and practising dietician who founded consultancy Wattleseed Nutrition, gave a presentation on nutrition and physical, spiritual and cultural wellbeing.
Tracy Hardy discussed:
- The changing landscape of Aboriginal peoples’ diets, from the historic diet of Aboriginal peoples through the impact of colonisation and food issues facing Aboriginal people today
- The social determinants of food security, and the importance of strategies to improve food security and nutrition for Aboriginal people taking a strengths-based approach.
Tracy Hardy talked about the great potential for a community-led approach to nutrition and food security to develop in Walgett.
In the next presentation, Jacqui Webster from The George Institute for Global Health, highlighted the following key points:
- Food is fundamental for life, and food culture is something to be cherished
- Poor diets are now THE MAIN cause of death and disease globally and a key contributor to the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians
- Reducing salt intake is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce premature death and disease globally
- Australians are eating almost double the daily recommended amount of salt
- Most salt comes from processed foods and meals, but we also need to consider sodium from water
- To improve diets, we need to change the food environment AND educate people about food.
Other presentations included the Walgett Community College high school principal, gardener and school canteen manager talking about initiatives they are planning to improve nutrition and engagement around food amongst high school students in Walgett.
The Forum finished with over an hour of discussion and input from all panellists and audience members, which is informing the development of an Action Plan. Discussion was focused around the following key themes:
- Connection between food and water crisis
- Impact of high salt and sugar intake
- Focus on strategies for engaging children and young people
- Cultural dimensions of food
- Whole of community initiatives
- Working with local IGA and food suppliers
- Involvement of the Shire Council
- Using new technologies and evidence-based solutions
- Need for national leadership on water.
The Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service led the proposal for development of a Walgett Action Plan around food and water, similar to the Action Plan for Children and Young People that came out of the Yuwaya Ngarra-li Youth Justice Forum last year.
This Action Plan, even more urgent given the recent fire in the only local supermarket, will be developed in the coming months – to stay in touch with the news, follow on Twitter: @DharriwaaEGroup and @Dharriwaa_UNSW.
And if you are in a position to make a tax-deductible donation to the Dharriwaa Elders Group food and water appeal for Walgett, please do so here.
• Dr Ruth McCausland is Director of Research and Evaluation, Yuwaya Ngarra-li