The Darling River runs dry

The mass deaths of fish along the lower reaches of the Darling River in NSW (Broken Hill, Menindee and Wentworth)  reminds us of the outbreak of blue-green algae that poisoned hundreds of kilometres of the river in 1991 and 1992. The death of hundreds of thousands of fish  due to the low river flow leading  to a drop in oxygen levels,   is yet another indication that too much water continues to  be extracted from the Darling River.

The lower Darling upstream of Menindee has run dry.   The river  stopped flowing  in  August 2018,  and the remaining waterholes have turned an ugly bright green. The river has become undrinkable, unswimmable and unsuitable for bathing. There is a push by the NSW Government to “decommission” the Menindee Lakes – in other words, to dry them out – which will cause further devastation to the Lower Darling.

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This will mean that the cotton  irrigators in the Barwon-Darling will no longer be restricted from pumping to ensure Broken Hill’s water supply when Menindee Lakes levels are low. Broken Hill’s water  will come from the River Murray via a new  pipeline.

This is in spite of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the ongoing impact of climate change. The Basin Plan is a reform to share water between irrigation and the environment. It sets a limit on how much water can be extracted for irrigation and therefore, how much is available to the environment and seeks to protect water set aside for the environment from being extracted for irrigation.

The recent frequent drying of the Darling River is a man-made situation: to  sacrifice the Lower Darling River to the interests of the  corporate cotton industry upstream in southern Queensland and northern NSW.

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That in turn is an indication of the gross mismanagement of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin, especially by the  NSW state government, which has been captured by irrigator interests.  As has the  Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which has become an ineffective regulator, as it allows amendments to the Basin Plan to  increase water available for irrigation through  36 projects that aim to use less environmental water in the Northern Basin.

What results is a consistent management pattern of undermining environment flows on behalf of irrigator interests,  who  have benefited from cheap water and publicly subsidised infrastructure investment. Continue reading

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pre-Mabo narratives of Australia

When you   step into history of water and country in Anglo-Australian society you quickly reconnect with the colonisation of Australia,  the  pre-Mabo narratives of Australia as an empty landscape (the doctrine of terra nullius),  the colonialist discourses that we are rooted in colonialist ideologies and legacies and racist law. These justify and legitimate the nigger hunts in the colonial history of frontier conflict involving  white men riding out on hunting expeditions to hunt and exterminate aboriginal people, as an exercise in land clearing.

A core  colonial ideology is  all about progress and destiny, the planting of flags and the arrival of legitimate historical narrative. This settler narrative  is  a heroic tale of the British as the discoverers, explorers and pioneers of the country, of how these white men came to settle a strange country and transform it by their science and technology, capital and labour, thus creating a civilisation out of a wilderness. This narrative  is silent about a population that has been almost exterminated; and it  denies that the wiping of Australian Aborigines  should be considered a genocide.

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This discourse  repudiates the alternative  narrative of invasion and dispossession of the original inhabitants.  Section 127 of the Australian Constitution pre-1967, was a section in which Aboriginal Australians were not classified as people but as part of the flora and fauna. This represented the extinguishment of their rights to land. Continue reading

revisiting Salt Creek

We stayed  a night at Salt Creek in the Coorong on our return  to Adelaide after spending  a few days on the Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne with family.   The overnight stay allowed me to do some   photography on an early morning poodlewalk around the eroded calcified limestone  formations  at the Salt Creek outlet and the South Lagoon.

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The South  Lagoon runs from Parnaka Point to south of Salt Creek and  I was guided by this report by the Goyder Institute  which had highlighted the decrease  in waterbird abundance in the Coorong. It stated that this decrease was been associated with a recent shift from an aquatic plant-dominated to an algal-dominated system. Continue reading

the photographic landscape tradition

I am finding that many of the non-drought  images of the River Murray and the Coorong in my  archives are representations of natural beauty.  This seems to me, when looking back on these images today,  to be an inadequate way to photograph the River Murray and its various  wetlands, given the  damage to their ecological health  from both the  lack of environmental flows and the Millennium Drought.

This damage is  particularly noticeable in  the Coorong’s South Lagoon, and as this lagoon  is currently  in a  stressed ecological state, so the conventional landscape style photographs of  natural beauty  are inappropriate.

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The problem with  conventional landscape photography in Australia is that is usually about the beauty of the landscape as a natural wilderness,  whilst  the River Murray and its various wetlands are manufactured landscapes. Since the 20th century the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin  have been engineered for irrigated agriculture and these rivers have been,  and are, managed for the benefit of irrigation and water for the various cities.

The above photo of the Murray Mouth, for instance,  is aesthetically pleasing: it is a harmonious composition within the  picturesque  landscape tradition.   What is not shown in the photo is that  the Murray Mouth  can only remain open if it is being constantly dredged,  due to the lack of environmental flows. Continue reading

The ‘Our Waters’ project: an update

The  Our Waters project, which is based around contemporary photographic responses to the Godson Collection held at the State Library of South Australia,  is starting to take shape.

At this stage several photographers have provisionally agreed to participate: namely,  Tony Kearny, James Tylor,  Nici Cumpston,  Stravos Pippos,  Paul Atkins, With Lars Heldmann and myself that makes 7  photographers in the project.  A few more may  come on board (possibly Mark Kimber and Andrew Dearman) whilst others may pull back from full participation.

Some background text to the project has been written,  and there are a few links to provide reference points for the project.  It is looking quite promising  at this  early stage, despite the lack of a website for the project. At the moment this blog is the only online presence  for the project.

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The 1st exhibition has been planned for the SALA Festival in Adelaide  in 2019, with the gallery at Atkins Photo Lab  decided on.  The design  of the exhibition in this rectangular space has been tentatively mapped out:  there will be 6-9 photographers and 12-14 prints–maybe more– in the exhibition, with  each  responding differently to the general Godson Collection from their own perspective.

Some may just do the odd image  for the specific exhibitions  whilst others may link or connect parts of  their own projects to the general Godson Collection.   The responses will be quite diverse:  the  photographers could rephotograph,  reinterpret or critique  the Collection in general and they will be using using contemporary, classical  and alternative technologies.
Continue reading

Photography in the Anthropocene

It was a welcome relief to come across pockets of habitat in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong National Park that were  in a healthy condition,  despite the lack of river flow during the Millennium Drought (1997–2009)  in south-eastern Australia.

These low flows  happened within  the proposed  Anthroprocene  period, which is a time when much of the diversity of life on Earth is being lost through human action causing a steady global warming.

This experience foregrounds  the need for photography, as a form of art,  to be more open to the experiences of nature;  and to be part of a rethinking that questions our most basic cultural narratives if  photography  in the 21st century is not to degenerate into  idle chatter.

The  causes for  the ecological devastation  in the Coorong during the Millennium Drought were the reduced freshwater flows from upstream. These, in turn, were  caused by  both the low rainfall during  the drought,  and the over extraction of water for the upstream,  irrigated agricultural industries. As a result, the shallow water in the Coorong become saltier than seawater,  and this diminished the life that previously thrived in the mixture of fresh and saltwater.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing in the Coorong is at the bottom end of  the River Murray,  which  had become  a regulated river  for irrigation water supply between  1910 to 1950.   This was a  period of history in which dams and weirs became powerful symbols of the transformative power of engineering and technology.

Though the Millennium Drought  was a time of  low rainfall,  the  melaleuca  pictured below looked to be in good condition.   It was  growing  on the side of the Old Coorong Rd,   near  the 28-32 Mile Crossing, near  The Granites, and it would be  normally be  overlooked or disregarded.  However, such  a   healthy tree within the  highly stressed Coorong suggests the need to  start thinking about the fate of non-human others in the Murray-Darling Basin:

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This part of the Coorong suggests we need to move away from a more simplistic dichotomy of nature versus humans to a photographic  culture that works with a  more nuanced and multilayered narrative.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing is before 42 Mile Crossing as the distance is measured  from the township Kingston that lies south of the Coorong.  The representations of  42 Mile Crossing  assume  the conventional understanding of the ‘natural world’ as  a passive background to human dramas.

It is seen as  a popular spot for fishers, campers and tourists,  as it is one of the few locations within the Coorong National Park providing ready access to the Young Husband Peninsula and the ocean beach without the need of water-craft. This conventional understanding ignores the deep time of earth history within which such human action is situated.  Continue reading

Landscape loss + nostalgia

One of the frequent responses to the common experience of landscape loss  in Australia’s industrial modernity –eg.,  salt ladened landscapes, dried out wetlands, low flows in our rivers, on-going land clearing and the loss of biodiversity  in Australia—is that of nostalgia,  or a yearning for what has been lost in the  Anthropocene.  The rivers used  to flow with clean water, the wetlands teemed with bird life, there were plenty of fish in the rivers, there was rich  biodiversity etc etc.

What has been lost in this  destruction of nature is  connected to issues of location and place of river communities. Nostalgia involves  a sense of unhappiness with the present, against which the past, or  often, an idyllic  past, is favourably compared. Lewis Bush in his  discontinued Disphotic: Writing on Photography  blog  puts it this way:

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to.

This response to industrialized landscapes is often characterised  as a ‘defence mechanism’ for those who are uncomfortable with change. Finding comfort in looking back  is seen to  reflect parochial  concerns, which  are often conservative and backward looking. Nostalgia, as a yearning for yesterday,  is seen as  passive and reactive and contains  melancholic ideas and practices. 

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Yearning and nostalgia are uncomfortable and personal emotions and themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and grief  bought on by the loss of home, community and landscape when the rivers stopped flowing.

For many the past in the late 20th,  and increasingly in the early 21st century,   has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. The past, with its rivers boats and flowing rivers   is seen to be  attractive because people find the present state of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin upsetting and bewildering.   They question the idea of progress,  namely the view that historical time is a  progressively improvement on the world of  the 19th century.   Continue reading