The Guardian • Issue #1956

NSW floods not a single story

In late March, floods covered 600 km along the NSW coast with tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes. This event has been referred to in the media as a once in a 100-year event.

Rainfall on the NSW coast during this time reached more than 400mm, according to the ABC. In contrast, Sydney usually reaches 132mm in total over March, which means that these rainfalls were significantly above average.

The cause of the floods has been attributed in part to the La Nina trade winds that bring the cool air of the south to Australia, which also probably contributed to the cooler weather we have experienced this summer. The other cause has been climate change.

It seems that year after year we face another natural disaster. Before these floods, we had the bushfires in 2020, and before that we had the draught wrecking western NSW across the Murray-Darling Basin. This basin is commonly thought of as Australia’s ‘food bowl’.

I ask readers to throw their minds back to the events in late 2018, and early 2019 where we had up to a million fish die and wash-up on the banks of Menindee lakes. An independent investigation was set up to analyse what caused the fish mortality, and the report found that significant-high flows following the draught caused major algal blooms that suffocated the local fauna. It is possible that if dry conditions follow in the next year or so after these major flows, we might be looking at a similar situation if not properly managed.

Some may think that once the flooding event is over, the problem is now resolved. But this is not the case. Rainfall, river flows, and water levels all have significant impacts on wildlife.

Increased nutrients in water can be dangerous for both our health and the health of our wildlife because they deplete the available oxygen in the water. It is either caused by “blackwater” from flooding, where nutrients from dead organic matter on land are washed into our waterways, or by draughts that limit the water available.

Increased flows can especially affect waterways if there has been significant agricultural runoff. Agricultural plains have high amounts of nutrients from fertilisers. These nutrients can lead to algal blooms and non-potable water.

The Hawkesbury river reached a max height of 12.9m during the floods. In contrast, current levels of lower Hawkesbury river now sit below 2m. Mainstream media refers to a historical moment where water heights reached 19m in 1867 as “the highest in living memory”, but this “living memory” is only the living memory of colonists.

There is a lot of attention on the importance of fire management led by First Nations people, but there is less emphasis on the importance of First Nations people’s water management.

The “Echuca Declaration,” published in 2009 by the Murray and Lower Darling River Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN), states that “RECOGNISING and REAFFIRMING that each of the Indigenous Nations represented within Murray and Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations is and has been since time immemorial sovereign over its own lands and waters” and that “water has a right to be recognised as ecological entity, a being and a spirit and must treated accordingly.”

The “Echuca Declaration” denounces the Commonwealth of Australia for not only the theft of land and water, but also for “causing ecosystem collapse, severe water quality degradation, extreme stress upon river ecologies and species extinction at a scale and rate which is unprecedented.”

The “Echuca Declaration” demanded the government give MLDRIN a water quantity for “cultural flows,” “cultural flow benefits” and for there to be consultation and involvement both ways between MLDRIN and the various state governments and between Indigenous scientists and Western scientists.

The First People’s Water Engagement Council was set up in 2010 as a national body in response to First Nations demanding their water rights but was abolished by the Abbott government in 2014. Water management bodies have engaged in discussions about cultural flows and Indigenous water management over the past few years, but at the same time, water is being increasingly privatised and sold off. Grassroots actions against these profit-driven deals are ongoing.

This “once in a 100-year event” needs to be seen not as a singular event, but as a part of the story of ecological degradation in this country at the hands of the illegal, capitalist government. The future must hold sustainable water practices as part of climate justice, and to keep water in the hands of the majority and First Nations people and out of the hands of private multinationals that drain our catchments dry.

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