Walgett delegation addresses student climate strike on the NSW river crisis

By Padraic Gibson

Jumbunna Research was proud to support a Gamilaraay delegation from Walgett to the student strike for Climate Action in Sydney last Friday March 15. This rally was part of a global strike action that saw millions of people rally across the world, all led by students.

Gamilaraay delegation UTS
The Gamilaraay delegation at UTS on the morning of the climate strike.

Indigenous communities are on the front line of the global climate crisis, with many already feeling acute impacts and also leading key struggles against the destruction of lands and waters.

Walgett is one of many river communities in Western NSW facing a severe environmental and humanitarian crisis. The Barwon-Darling (Barka) river system has been killed by corporate irrigators, particularly the cotton industry upstream, and gross mismanagement. They rely on bore water to drink and this often poses a threat to health. Aboriginal people are leading protests in defence of the rivers, including with a major day of action on March 4 across six river communities.

Leading rally
Harley, Kyanah and Jayelahni lead the march through the streets of Sydney.

We have been inspired by the efforts of Sydney based activist group Fighting in Resistance Equally (FIRE), travelling to Walgett and other river communities in North West NSW with donated pallets of drinking water and also mobilising to demand action in the city. We worked with FIRE to support the travel and organising efforts of Vanessa Hickey from Walgett and also with the organisers of the school strike to ensure these issues would be heard as part of the climate protest.

Speaking town hall
Jayelahni speaks to thousands of students, supported by Harley and Kyanah.

Vanessa travelled to Sydney for the strike with her 13 year-old son Harley and 12 year-old community member Jayelahni Neill. They were joined at the strike by family members currently living in Sydney, including high school student Kyanah Hickey. Jayelahni and Kyanah both spoke to the crowd in Sydney of more than 25,000 people and Harley gave a number of media interviews.

Below is a transcript of the speeches delivered to huge crowds at Town Hall. At the conclusion of the speeches, the entire crowd roared “Always Was Always Will Be – Aboriginal Land”. We are hopeful that the emerging generation, fighting for a liveable planet for us all, will recognise the urgent issues already facing Indigenous communities and the central role of Indigenous rights and Indigenous leadership in the struggle for climate justice. We also need people of all ages to join the struggle.

We would like to express our thanks and admiration to all families involved and pay a special tribute to James Dagher who does regular relief trips to the north west and drove the delegation down for the rally. Also to Raymond Weatherall who has been central to this campaign gave a powerful acknowledgement to country at the strike rally at UTS that marched up to join the students at Town Hall. Thanks to the Indigenous Land and Justice Research Hub here at UTS who hosted a breakfast for the Walgett delegation.


Jayelahni Neill

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. We pay our respects to the elders both past and present and those of the future, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the hopes of the Australian Aboriginal people.

My name is Jayelahni Neill. I am 12 years old and I have travelled from Walgett to Sydney to protest because the people in power aren’t living in Walgett. They aren’t seeing that our two beautiful rivers are dry. It breaks my heart because we have a strong connection to our two rivers.

I grew up eating the fish out of the rivers. And eating the crawfish. But now there is nothing, because there is no water.

We used to go down to the rivers swimming all the time.

This summer has been really hot. It’s been close to 50 degrees for days and days in a row. It makes people feel so frustrated. It’s really hot from first thing in the morning.

When I was younger we could drink water out of the tap, but now we can’t do that anymore. We are drinking water out of cartons and bottles that are brought in from out of town.

We want our water back. We want it back flowing in the rivers.

Kyanah Hickey

I am a proud Gamilaray girl. So when I stand here today I stand here to say, “we want our rivers back!”

But we for some reason can’t have that. A few rapacious cotton growers have taken our water. The government lets them just take it and not let it flow back into the river.

Imagine Sydney without the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House – or imagine it without any Sydney Harbour at all. That’s what Walgett is like without the rivers.

We’ve seen the river at it’s good and bad. Even when it’s been at it’s worst, it’s always come back. On it’s good days, everyone could go down to the river and fish, reconnect to the land and just make memories. It was reliable.

Our people have been doing that for a very long time. For 65,000 years. And it’s just been snatched from under our feet.

Cotton requires so much water and we are in a desert land. They shouldn’t be growing cotton, only crops that are sustainable. Because we need our water in the rivers.

Climate change will mean more problems with water everywhere. I have seen plans being made by the government, talking about spending millions of dollars on treatment plants that can convert salt water into fresh water. But this takes so long and uses so much energy – which would mean burning more coal. This would mean the environment would just be hotter and hotter.

We should just be taking more care of the water we have.

We don’t just have a problem with the cotton farmers taking our water – the coal seam gas and the mining companies take our water too. I’ve been to the Pilaga to protest against Coal Seam Gas. This is a very sacred place for us, with very precious water in the basin underneath. It’s on Gamilaraay land. The companies steal from us and it’s the people who pay the price. And it will all make climate change worse.

What will we have left in our future? In Walgett government thinks that digging under ground for bore water is the answer. But the bore water can get contaminated and has lots of salt in it. Our people should not have to drink this.

It really great to see so many kids trying to make a difference for our future. If we are going to get through this, what’s happening with climate change, we all need to help each other out.

Let’s all stand together for our water and for our future.