In Australia's drought towns, angry residents rely on charity, not government, for water

Across northern NSW and southern Queensland, people have stepped up to truck water to those whose supplies have run dry

A few months ago, Russell Wantling pulled over to the side of the road near the southern Queensland town of Stanthorpe to speak to a family he saw carrying buckets of water from the town dam. Again and again, they lugged each bucketload up the dam wall and poured it into a tank strapped to the tray of an old ute.

“I just stopped and asked what they were doing,” Wantling says. “He said to me that they had no water, he couldn’t afford to buy water because he’d lost his job. So I went to my wife and said ‘we’ve got to do something, this is terrible’.

“They talk about this Day Zero all the time, but it already is Day Zero.”

Wantling, a truck driver, now coordinates the handout of about 340,000litres of water a week in Queensland’s granite belt region. He is one of several ordinary people trucking water to desperate and drought-ravaged parts of Queensland and New South Wales, where Day Zero has long come and gone.

This is a familiar, hopeful story about the resilience of Australians and their communities, the sort condensed into our folklore at times of natural disaster and crisis.

But it is also punctuated by anger and disbelief that the burden of supplying the most basic necessity to thousands of people in inland towns, on rural properties and in Indigenous communities has fallen mostly to community groups and charities.

The longer they wait for rain, the more acutely people learn they cannot rely on interventions from local councils or governments.

‘You have to swallow your pride’

At the water shed run by Granite Belt Water Relief in Stanthorpe, people in old paddock bashers and newer four-wheel-drives queue for a 1,000L allocation of free water every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. Almost all come from outside town, beyond the reticulated water supply. They all tell slight variations of the same story, one after the other. The tanks are empty. No one is listening.

The tanks on Amy Doherty’s property have been dry since March. Until Wantling began his deliveries, she and her family were able to shower only once a week. About two months ago, she became sick and unable to work, Doherty says, as she lines up.

“I didn’t want to come here to begin with. There was no way I could do it because I was too proud,” Doherty says.

“I live with my mother and my two young kids and I said to my Mum, ‘I can’t do this any more. I cannot cope’.

Danny, Peta and Balin Johns wait for volunteers to finish filling their water pod with clean water.
Danny, Peta and Balin Johns wait for volunteers to finish filling their water pod with clean water. Photograph: Liz Fama'aea

“We had to have four horses put to sleep because we had no food, no water and our horses were just suffering. With less showering there were hygiene issues. It was hard. It was even hard to talk about it. But you have to swallow your pride, and that’s even harder.”

Danny and Peta Johns and their son Balin also rely on the supply from the water shed. They have not had water in their dams for almost five months.

“We moved from Victoria about five years ago and when we bought our house we were getting about 500ml of rain a year. We’ve had 150ml in the last two years probably.

“Without [the water charity] we’d be buggered. We’d have no animals. None of these people here would have any stock at all. It’s disastrous. Having a family, paying a mortgage ... without this we would just be buggered. I couldn’t afford to buy water.

“There’s nothing from the government at all. If it weren’t people like these volunteers, then we don’t know what we’d do.”

Les Watnell says his property near Stanthorpe has had about 40mm of rainfall all year.

“When you’re not working it’s too expensive to get the tank filled.

“We’ve had to share our drinking water with our stock. We’re on one tank for a four-bedroom house. We’re having baths after the kids so we can keep down on our water.

“The government has done nothing. Without [the water charity] we’d have nothing, it’s as simple as that.”

‘I’m a homeless guy and I can get trucks out there’

The cracked brown dirt of the middle-of-nowhere, north-west New South Wales, is a long way from Sydney’s cold, concrete streets where Lanz Priestley still lives rough when he’s not on the road delivering water.

Priestley is best known as the mayor of Martin Place, from his days as a ringleader of the tent city that sprang up in Sydney in 2017. He now runs Dignity Water, which has taken emergency supplies of drinking water to thirsty places such as Walgett, Menindee, Bourke, Tenterfield and many smaller communities in between.

“I have said directly to various people in government: ‘I live on the streets in Sydney, here I am a homeless guy in Sydney and I can get these B-doubles out there, why can’t the government?’” Priestley says.

Lanz Priestley, who now runs Dignity Water, which has taken emergency supplies of drinking water to thirsty places such as Walgett, Menindee, Bourke, Tenterfield and many smaller communities in between
Lanz Priestley, who now runs Dignity Water, which has taken emergency supplies of drinking water to thirsty places such as Walgett, Menindee, Bourke, Tenterfield and many smaller communities in between. Photograph: Dignity Water

“I’ve done things about problems for decades. We’ve politely asked governments, we’ve done protests. I’ve come to the realisation the fastest way of getting any action is beating government to doing something. I’m not prepared to ask any more in the futile hope that government might do something. Here we’re just mobilising people. Here’s a solution, let’s just get in and do that.”

Dignity Water started with a few pallet loads to places in need. Priestley crowdsources funding, supplies and support to do larger water drops.

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“The remote Indigenous communities are detrimentally affected right across Australia. They’re included in the communities we service, of course. I’m not going to take water out there for black people, white people, rich people, poor people. If we take water out there, we take it out there for people.

“These problems are much bigger than are going to be solved with a few bottles and a few truckloads of water. Everyone knows that. Most levels of government should have been acutely aware of this 40 years ago and did nothing about it.”

Last week, Priestley arrived in Tenterfield as locals marked 77 days since they were first advised to boil their drinking water, which has been heavily contaminated by ash from recent bushfires. It smells of bushfire smoke and heavy chlorine.

“If people in Sydney had to live like this, millions of people were forced to live like this, it would be unacceptable,” says Luanna Legge, a local who has started Tenterfield Water Relief to hand out drinking water.

“There would be protests, there would be riots. They would be calling for change after one week.”

‘They’re amazed that we’re there at all’

Back in June, a Sydney-based Indigenous activist group, Fighting In Resistance (Fire), posted a remarkable video on YouTube showing water drops to towns such as Collarenebri and Walgett, where the rivers that for centuries sustained Aboriginal culture have turned to dust.

The footage is raw and powerful and shocking. It has been viewed online 66 times.

Towards the end a First Nations man is filmed walking across the sandy river bed that used to be the Barwon.

“It’s only taken them 200 or something odd years to bugger stuff up,” he says.

Those rivers in the north-west of New South Wales, the Barwon and the Namoi, are major tributaries for the sick Murray-Darling system. They have been dry for more than a year, something many locals say has never happened before.

Much of the water in Walgett is now coming from bores and is so salty it stinks. There is no desalination plant, despite warnings from health experts and traditional owners for more than a year about potential impacts.

“It tastes really foul and minerally and slimy,” says Andy Mason, who is coordinating water distribution for Fire.

“If there isn’t water being provided by us or by whoever ... people are spending really large amounts of income buying bottled water. In places like Walgett some families say they were spending a quarter of their income just buying water. People have been travelling to Moree 150km away just to get drinking water.”

Mason says Fire decided to become involved about a year ago after learning of the water situation in Walgett. The group has installed water filters in homes and helps to coordinate local distribution of water so Indigenous people don’t miss out.

“At first we just bought drinking water in supermarkets and physically drove it there in as many cars as we could get. Since then it’s evolved.

Les Watnell and son Noah Balaam refill the family drinking water pod at the Granite Belt water relief station
Les Watnell and son Noah Balaam refill the family drinking water pod at the Granite Belt water relief station. Photograph: Liz Fama'aea

“Our primary concern is Aboriginal families in all these towns.

“A lot of people are amazed that anyone cares. We get that response quite often – it’s depressing in itself. They’re so used to being ignored, they’re amazed that we’re there at all.”

‘The reality is it’s left up to me’

There is little definitive information available about how many people live off the water grid or the scale of their suffering in a drought where the focus of government has been on monitoring and shoring up town water supplies.

In 1994, a Human Rights Commission report into Indigenous water and sanitation estimated 154,000 people living in small communities had no reticulated water supply and another 285,000 were on small water schemes serving fewer than 1,000 people.

Those figures don’t take into account large numbers who live on properties outside town and village centres, in some cases just a few kilometres away. In some places the situation creates a sort of water segregation.

In Stanthorpe, trucks are bringing water to Storm King Dam to stave off Day Zero for those in town. Rural people can fill mobile tanks from the dam, but have to pay a $170 deposit for an access key – money many say they don’t have. Otherwise they must rely on charity.

The local MP, David Littleproud, is also the federal water minister. He told Guardian Australia that while water supply to communities has been a state issue since federation, the federal government would consider stepping in.

Local woman Maree Jones saves all her shower and washing machine water to use on her garden
Local woman Maree Jones saves all her shower and washing machine water to use on her garden Photograph: Liz Fama'aea

“The federal government will obviously not stand by if states do not provide water for towns,” he says. “But our expectation is that they secure water now and into the future with better planning and building of water infrastructure for future droughts.”

Wantling says hearing story after story about people struggling has become difficult; that he is shouldering a burden that local and state and federal politicians are not. The water shed has morphed into a larger charity setup with a pantry full of donated food for those most in need. Each Wednesday and Saturday there are 30 volunteers.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “And I’m a truck driver. It’s hard for me. I walked into the office the other day and all the women were crying and sobbing. There was a girl who lost her job a few weeks ago and didn’t have food. We gave her fuel vouchers and washing vouchers and more food. It’s not a small amount of people, it’s a lot of people.

“They’re just working class people who you’d think would get by. They’re not used to even using the system, so to ask for help is a really hard thing.

“I do get pissed off because the reality is it’s left up to me and if I don’t get the water, they don’t get the water. If we shut down tomorrow, there would be people with no water. We’re doing all this work and a lot of people are going to bed at night not even worrying about this. They wouldn’t know what was going on.”


Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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