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Health expert warns residents are at risk from high sodium in water in drought-stricken NSW town of Walgett

By Rachel Carbonell, National Regional Reporting Team, Jessie Davies and Danielle Bonica, Tuesday December 11, 2018 - 15:45 EDT
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The Barwon River at Walgett is just a series of stagnant pools at the moment. - ABC

Walgett has always been a river town, perched near the junction of the Barwon and the Namoi rivers.

But with the drought biting hard, the water from those rivers isn't making it to this northern New South Wales town.

With nothing to pump from the local weir, Walgett is the latest town forced to go underground for water, a move that health experts say could have potentially serious health implications.

Many locals are worried the emergency supply of bore water is damaging their health.

Dharriwaa Elder, Thomas Morgan, said the water was no good for drinking.

"Too much salt in it," he said. "The kids, my grandkids, they're starting to spit it out, they don't like it."

'The foulest smell'

Elder Rick Townsend lives near the water treatment plant.

"I get the smell of it every morning and it's the foulest smell," he said.

"I don't drink it, not at all. I drink the water at the hospital, tank water. Or I'll buy the water in the supermarkets."

Another local, Chantelle Kennedy, said most people were avoiding the tap water. "Most of us go to IGA and buy packs of 24 bottles for $20. It's dear," she said.

"A lot of people have been buying fizzy drinks because of the water. Some of them come out and buy hot drinks, which is cheaper than buying water."

Salt of the earth

The bore water is from the Great Artesian Basin, which provides water for many outback communities.

However, tests of the drinking water in Walgett have shown the sodium levels there exceed Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

Associate Professor Jacqui Webster, from the George Institute for Global Health, said the sodium levels were concerning.

"The sodium levels in the Walgett water supply are at 300 milligrams per litre and the Australian drinking water guidelines are 180 milligrams per litre, so that's substantially higher," she said.

Dr Webster said the guidelines for sodium in drinking water were based on taste rather than health.

But she said high sodium levels did pose serious health risks, particularly for people with underlying health problems.

"The Australian guidelines do state that medical practitioners who are concerned about people with hypertension should advise that people drink water with no more than 20 milligrams of sodium per litre," she said.

"The Walgett drinking water is about 15 times that amount … so we need to be thinking about action to address that."

Chief Executive of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Christine Corby, said high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes were common health issues.

"Unfortunately in our community and particularly Aboriginal people, they have a high incidence of chronic disease," she said.

"I believe we are going to have an increase in chronic disease here, particularly from the water consumption," she said.

"In my life here in Walgett for 40 odd years, it's the first time I've never drank straight from the tap," she said.

"I just worry for people who have to drink straight from the tap."

Dr Webster said those who avoided salty drinking water by drinking alternatives such as soft drinks were solving one problem and creating another.

"If they are drinking the water it's potentially a problem but if they are substituting it with other things that is also a cause for concern," she said.

"Indigenous communities are suffering from greater incidences of diabetes, obesity and hypertension," she said.

"In general people get a disproportionate amount of salt from processed foods in communities where there is limited access to fresh foods, so compounding that with sodium from the water supply is a problem, and it's something we need to be looking into."

Community veggie garden under threat

The Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service runs a community garden which provides fresh produce for its chronic-disease clients.

Christine Corby said the garden was crucial to these people.

"It's part of good health, it's part of healthy living, it's part of prevention and treatment of chronic disease," she said.

For now, the garden has an exemption from the town's level-5 water restrictions, but Ms Corby said she was not sure how long that would last. And even with the exemption, the bore water on offer may not be suitable for gardens.

"The research that we've received from the University of New South Wales has indicated the long-term effects, the quality of the plants, they will deteriorate, the nutrients will be reduced so it doesn't work," she said.

"In the long term we can't sustain the garden."

'It's going to keep everyone alive'

Walgett's mayor, Manuel Martinez, said the shire commissioned the town bore to provide water security in the event of shortages just like this one.

"Two years ago, we had the foresight to sink a bore. We're drought-proofing our whole shire," Cr Martinez said.

"This is Australia. We're in a drought and until the drought breaks, that's the only water supply we've got."

"It's going to keep everyone alive, and that's what we're here to do," he said.

"The sodium level is a bit high, higher than normal, higher than preferred, but it's within the guidelines and it's the same level it is with other bores.

"I've lived in Lightning Ridge for the last 32 years with only bore water. Most of outback Queensland is on the Artesian Basin."

Cr Martinez said that as soon as there was water in the rivers again, Walgett would be back on river water — or at least on a mixture of river and bore water.

He said the bore water was a short-term emergency supply.

"I'm not doubting what they say, long-term effects of anything can be harmful, especially sodium or salt in the water system," he said.

The upstream imbalance

Many residents in Walgett believe it is not just the drought that is to blame for the dry rivers.

They say the waterways have not being managed properly and that too much water is being taken out upstream.

Chairman of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Bill Kennedy, said it was hard when people saw so much water in the rivers not far up the road.

"We've lived through droughts before but there was always some water, and some running water," he said.

"I guess progress has changed all that with irrigators, farming, and especially cotton further up the river.

"I was driving to Tamworth, Newcastle last week and there's water in the rivers further up at Gunnedah, Narrabri, Wee Waa."

The mayor agreed, and said it was frustrating to see so much water upstream in both rivers.

Cr Martinez said the last two water releases from Lake Keepit were supposed to flow down as far as Walgett but they never made it.

"It's beyond council's control … we can only apply to push, to get another release, and try and get water to make it down to us."

He said there was another water release from Lake Keepit on its way and hopefully this one will make it all the way to Walgett.

Spirits at low ebb

Many people in this community were deeply saddened by the state of the two rivers here.

Elder Rick Townsend says it was the worst dry spell anyone could remember.

"It's a pretty bad state of affairs," he said.

"It's the worst I've ever seen it in all my life that I've lived here."

For countless generations, the rivers have been a place to meet, fish and swim. But locals said at the moment that was simply not possible.

"There's no fish or anything in the river any more," says another Elder, Thomas Morgan.

"People used to come down here and fish every day, catch heaps of fish and crayfish. [They would] come with their kids and spend a good day here with them and be happy, and now they can't do that."

For Clem Dodd, a spokesman for the Dharriwaa Elders Group, the implications for the community were dire.

"This place will be a ghost town before long," he said.

"If there's no water, everything's going to die. There'll be nothing here for people — they'll all be moving out."


© ABC 2018

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