Voice of Real Australia: The alarms sounded in Wilcannia long before COVID

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A young boy faces an uncertain future in Wilcannia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

A young boy faces an uncertain future in Wilcannia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"Wilcannia? You're going to Wilcannia? Nah, you want to avoid that place. Dangerous. Depressing."

Dire words from an old mate who'd spent every holiday for decades criss-crossing the Outback, first with a swag, then a camper trailer and now one of those comfortable but rugged off-road caravans.

It wasn't the first time that warning had been sounded.

More than 30 years earlier, a new job required returning to Sydney from Perth by car. Helping to plan the route, colleagues said, "Avoid Wilcannia, mate. You're better off heading to Bourke from Broken Hill, then take the road through Nyngan."

The remote town, once known as the "Queen City of the West", carried a lot of baggage, none of it particularly desirable.

Alcohol, drugs, poor health, overcrowding and crime, a largely Indigenous population living in desperate conditions - a life expectancy for males of only 37 years - circled over Wilcannia like the ever-present kites scanning the ground for carrion.

So it was with some trepidation we arrived in Wilcannia a couple of weeks before COVID came to town. We couldn't have been more surprised.

The town looked terribly rundown. Graceful sandstone buildings - a legacy of Wilcannia's standing as the third busiest port in NSW during the 19th century wool boom - were boarded up and neglected. For a first time visitor, it was like stumbling upon a rare vintage car hidden from view in a shed, covered in dust but screaming out for restoration.

But the townsfolk were upbeat and friendly. Why? The Darling River - the Barka, as the First Nations people call it - was flowing again. And that had made all the difference. The listlessness of a dry river bed and all the social ills it brings had lifted. The locals were keen to see it remain that way.

Their concerns are a central theme in the Forgotten River series, illustrating the human cost of the commodification of the Murray-Darling Basin's key resource: water.

This week, in the NSW Parliament, an Upper House inquiry into floodplain harvesting in the Northern Basin is conducting public hearings. Questions are being raised about whether the water diverted from the river system during flood events denies communities hundreds of kilometres downstream from their fair share of water.

In 2024 the contentious Basin Plan, the federal legislative instrument which governs water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, will be up for review.

The outcome of these inquiries will shape the future of places like Wilcannia. That's why, even though the water's flowing and it's a time of plenty, the voices of the Darling-Barka are heard now. Because as surely as the sun sets, the cycle of drought will roll around again.

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