Thirst turns to anger as Australia's mighty river runs dry

Thirst turns to anger as Australia's mighty river runs dry

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Reduced to a string of stagnant mustard-coloured pools, fouled in places with pesticide runoff and stinking with the rotting carcasses of cattle and fish, the Darling River is running dry.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
An injured kangaroo struggles in the muddy riverbed before being put out by concerned campers.

The parched earth of Australia's longest waterway, if tributaries are included, is in the grip of the continent's most severe drought in a century.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Sheep and a bird drink from a pool on the riverbed of the Darling River.

At Menindee, 830 km west of Sydney, despair has turned to anger as residents blame the government for exacerbating the drought by drawing down river water in 2017 for irrigation and other uses downstream.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Doyle uses boxed water to make a cup of tea at her home.

Locals now avoid using tap water for drinking and washing babies and children, saying it has caused skin irritation, and prefer boxed and bottled water instead.

"That was our food source, the river, our water source. That was our livelihood," said Aboriginal elder Patricia Doyle, in her backyard piled with flotsam discovered in the now-exposed riverbed.

"When you live on a river and you have to have water brought into your town to drink and survive on, what's that saying? It's saying that our system ... isn't looked after properly."

. Trangie, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
A field is sprinkled with the remnants of cotton after a harvest.

The past two years have been the driest in the catchment area of the Darling, which flows 2,844 km (1,767 miles) over the outback to the sea, and adjoining Murray river since records began in 1900.

Drought is weighing on economic growth, and the dire conditions have prompted Australia, a major wheat exporter, to import the grain for the first time in 12 years.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
The sun rises over dried up lake Pamamaroo.

Last summer was the hottest on record, and in Menindee, where temperatures regularly top 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), another scorching season is expected.

The government has set up a panel to evaluate water management and ordered its anti-trust watchdog to investigate trading in irrigation rights.

. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Clark (center), Cyril Hunter and Eddy Harris (left) sit in a cafe.

Doyle's clan is called the Barkindji, or people of the river, and in Aboriginal language, the Darling is called the Barka.

The river is at the heart of stories about the origins of the clan and its cultural life, particularly evident in Menindee where a third of 550 residents are indigenous, compared with a national average of less than 3%.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
The trunk of a gum tree glows as the sun sets over what is left of the Darling River.

Lined with river red gums, the Darling also waters some of Australia's richest grazing land, and until the construction of railways in the early 20th century, was the main route used to take wool and other goods to market.

. AUSTRALIA. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Kyle Philip poses for a photograph with his son Kaleb Philip at their home.

All aspects of society are now suffering. "The river country itself, it doesn't provide as much as what it used to," says Kyle Philip, a Barkindji hunter and goat musterer.

Parents have forbidden children from swimming in the murky water that remains. Fish caught in holes still deep enough to hold water are inedible.

"We could taste the mud in the meat of the perch," said Philip. "We couldn't really eat them."

. Wilcannia, AUSTRALIA. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Participants take part in a traditional smoking ceremony as Aboriginal dance groups prepare to perform at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.

Recently, Aboriginal communities held special festivals along the river "to heal the Barka". Ochre-painted dancers performed around fires at dusk, revering the river but also seeking to draw attention to its plight.

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Shillingsworth plays with his grandson.

"We're going to start dancing and singing the land," organiser Bruce Shillingsworth said. "Singing the rivers, singing our environment back again to make it healthy."

. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy
Ferguson prepares for a church service.

And in the Anglican church at Menindee, there are prayers. "The river should be flowing," said Reverend Helen Ferguson.

"When that river flows, the people are just abuzz and the whole town just comes to life. But that hasn't happened for some time now and my prayer is that people don't get worn down through that."

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Slideshow

A dead moth floats in a festering pool in the shrinking Darling River.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

A dead moth floats in a festering pool in the shrinking Darling River.

A bathroom sink sits near the Clark's shack.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

A bathroom sink sits near the Clark's shack.

Clark cooks over an open fire at his shack.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Clark cooks over an open fire at his shack.

Donated 10 litre boxes of water are stored and distributed at the 103.1FM radio station.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Donated 10 litre boxes of water are stored and distributed at the 103.1FM radio station.

Broadcaster DJ Dolly Foxxx helps distribute donated 10 litre boxes of water for the use of the Wilcannia community.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Broadcaster DJ Dolly Foxxx helps distribute donated 10 litre boxes of water for the use of the Wilcannia community.

Charli Parsley, the cat of a Menindee resident, sits near his bowl of water which is filled from a box of donated water.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Charli Parsley, the cat of a Menindee resident, sits near his bowl of water which is filled from a box of donated water.

The Barbie dolls of Doyle's granddaughter wait in the bathroom to be cleaned at her home.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

The Barbie dolls of Doyle's granddaughter wait in the bathroom to be cleaned at her home.

Patricia (Patsy) Quayle (R) and her daughter Doyle use bottled water at their campsite.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Patricia (Patsy) Quayle (R) and her daughter Doyle use bottled water at their campsite.

Malachy Philip does a back flip on his trampoline.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Malachy Philip does a back flip on his trampoline.

Kaleb Philip rides a motorbike around the family home.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Kaleb Philip rides a motorbike around the family home.

An Aboriginal girl holds a baby at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

An Aboriginal girl holds a baby at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.

Gregory Garden smokes a cigarette as he watches the sunset.
. Menindee, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Gregory Garden smokes a cigarette as he watches the sunset.

Major Sumner (L) prepares to perform at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

Major Sumner (L) prepares to perform at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.

An Aboriginal dance group prepare to perform at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

An Aboriginal dance group prepare to perform at Yaama Ngunna Baaka Corroboree Festival.

The head, neck and body of the Dark Emu is outlined by the Milky Way Galaxy over Clark's shack.
. Wilcannia, Australia. Reuters/Tracey Nearmy

The head, neck and body of the Dark Emu is outlined by the Milky Way Galaxy over Clark's shack.