Stories from the outback

Thursday, 6 March 2014

By Declan Clausen.  

Over the past decade many of us have both observed, and taken an active role in, the heated debate which has polarised the eastern states of Australia. The topic is a complex one which divided many communities: how should water be allocated along the extent of the mighty Murray-Darling.

stories from the outback

In November of last year I have the privilege to see this debate in a different light, away from the overly simplistic farmers vs environment argument portrayed in mainstream media. For just over a fortnight I travelled with two project directors and eleven engineering professionals to visit Aboriginal community partners located throughout the entire Murray Darling Basin (MDB) on the Engineers Without Borders Dialogues on Development.

Engineers Without Borders, for those readers previously unacquainted with their work, is a medium sized non-government organisation which aims to unite engineering professionals and developing communities worldwide in meaningful partnerships that aim to create systemic change though humanitarian engineering. This work has focused on the provision of basic human needs like clean water, sanitation and hygiene, energy and related infrastructure, waste systems, and information and communication technologies.

My own fortnight long EWB adventure covered more 5,500 kilometres through outback Australia. The trip commenced in Brisbane and ultimately concluded in Melbourne, and allowed us to meet more that 15 Aboriginal community partners from right across QLD, NSW, SA and Vic. 

These communities represented a fraction of the diversity of Aboriginal Australia. Seeing firsthand the richness and diversity of the cultures that make up our First Australians was an enlighten experience. Prior to attending I had been deluded into thinking of Aboriginal Australia as a large homogeneous mass where policy could be implemented nationwide without issues of incompatibility. 

Highlights of the experience for me included spending three days at Murra Murra Station, a former sheep station located on the banks of the empty Nepbine Creek in South West Queensland. Murra Murra was returned in the early naughties to its traditional owners, the Kooma People, under an Indigenous Land Agreement (ILA). The EWB Dialogues group met on Country with Kooma Elders Ranger Geoff and Pop Dave, and heard both of the challenges and opportunities that exist for the Kooma people in the long-term management and restoration of their culturally significant land.  One of the most promising opportunities for the Kooma people is sustainable tourism. Working in partnership with this community, EWB Volunteers from Melbourne Water are assisting to see this vision become a reality.  

Downstream of Murra Murra we were lucky to visit Cubbie Station, the single largest irrigation property in the Southern Hemisphere. Cubbie Station is presently licenced to remove almost half a million megalitres of water from the Murray-Darling system each year, with holding dams storing water more than the volume of Sydney Harbour. This water is used to irrigate more than 130 square kilometres of the water intensive crop cotton, which generates a net profit of approximately $60 million each year.  

Visiting Cubbie Station and listening to the insight of the station's managers provided additional perspective to the environment vs agriculture debate.  Whilst government regulation on Cubbies' operation does exist, I left with a clear view that the current owners are benefiting significantly from the poorly informed and overly generous entitlements of the past, and are making a profit at the expense of both the environment and others downstream.  

Travelling further downstream, visiting many communities along the way each with their own story, we arrived at the Murray's mouth on the Coorong near Adelaide in South Australia. The Coorong is a special place presently protected as National Park managed in partnership with the SA State Government by its traditional owners, the Ngarrindjeri People. The Ngarrindjeri story is a sad one, and is characterised by some of the worst acts of dispossession and cultural destruction that formed an integral part of European colonisation and the subsequent 'White Australia' policies.  Despite this the Ngarrindjeri remain a proud people, working to protect their lands and continue their long story by working with linguists to recreate a language whose dictionary had being shrunk to only a couple of dozen words through cultural destruction.

It was a truly eye opening experience, and I feel very privileged to have attended. Thank you to all the public and private donors who assisted in my attendance including the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment and the Equity and Diversity Unit of the University of Newcastle as well as the Rotary Club of Newcastle Enterprise and Sonia Hornery MP.  Declan Clausen studies Environmental Engineering and Science at the University of Newcastle. He was the 2013 Newcastle Young Citizen of the Year. More at

Contact Belinda McNab
Phone 02 4921 5700