The river runs through it
The waters of the Balonne River have connected the people of the Maranoa region for tens of thousands of years. Three very different people explain their relationship to the river and how climate change is impacting on the waters that sustain them.
Towards the top of the massive Murray-Darling River system, the Balonne River in Southwest Queensland is one of the ancient wrinkles of the earth, recording the traces of those who have crossed its path. Waters from the sleepy Maranoa River flow downstream, connecting with the Barwon, the Darling, and, eventually, the Murray before meeting the sea.
Throughout its long journey south, the Balonne's waters connect places, people, and stories. The Bigambul people and the river have watched over each other for thousands of years. Over time, more and more new residents settled along the river and continued their own chapters of the river story. The Balonne and the people who call it home are now facing its most challenging chapter, with climate change threatening the river and all those who rely on it.
One rainy season in 2012, the Balonne River washed away the Maranoa region, causing $124.7 million in damage to the local community. Houses were torn apart by flood waters, and many families were temporarily forced to part ways. The significant flooding was the beginning of climate change coming into reality. As climate change increasingly impacts the water cycle, the stories of the Balonne will be forced to either come to an end or be written anew.
Ancient flows, old friends
The Traditional Custodians and Native Title Holders of the Balonne River are the Bigambul Nation. For the Bigambul people, the river has a significant role in their culture and history. Their relationship with the river is intrinsic in nature, with water not only being essential for survival, but an indivisible, interwoven and central element of cultural and spiritual life.
The Bigambul people value the waterways as key meeting places for transmission of culture and ceremonial purposes, such as sharing information, initiations, and song-lines. They also utilise parts of the water system for cultural reasons, and see clean water as important for swimming, drinking and continuing traditional fishing practices. However, climate change has altered the waterway and poses a threat to traditional practices.
“The sea level rise has pushed the border of the bay back, we’ve lost a lot of historical sites to study how our ancestors survived,” said Regina, the director of Bigambul Nation Corporation.
Recently funded by a government grant, the Aboriginal Rangers conduct cultural burning with firefighters.
“There are certain trees, if they fall into the water, they can turn toxic and kill all the oxygen in the water, and then our fish will die. So, we conduct cultural burning to stop this,” Regina explained.
Cultural burning is a traditional practice that had been used for over 60,000 years to protect the waterways and mitigate the effects of extreme bushfires caused by climate change. With their deep connection to the lands and waters and thousands of years of knowledge, First Nations people have an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to climate change, however, they are often marginalised from climate change policy and decision-making.
“It's this disregard for Aboriginal people, our customs, how we looked after the land, how we manage the land in our way, and the disregard for Aboriginal culture. We've been trying to put this thing together now for two years and still, we have resistance from even the local government. It's changing, but it's far too slow,” Regina responds with a weary sigh.
The Bigambul Nation is now working with other Aboriginal communities in Maranoa to manage the impacts of climate change on the local waterways. They have also established an Aboriginal Rangers program to engage young people in climate action.
For Bigambul youth, acting on climate change is a way of forging deep connections with their lands and waters. Learning the environmental management systems taught by Elders and applying them to climate change solutions has been helpful with the reclamation of their connection to the river.
The Traditional Custodians of the Balonne have lived alongside the cycles of flood and drought, of raging rapids and struggling streams for tens of thousands of years. Climate change is impacting on these cycles, making them more severe and harder to recover from. Lin* is relatively new to these lands but it is something she has already seen during her time in Roma.
Lin is an immigrant from Hong Kong, a densely populated city that is very different to Roma in almost every way: climate, culture, language, and economy. In the relatively short time she has lived in the Maranoa, she has experienced three flooding events.
“I’ve stayed in Roma for 16 years. The reason why I did not leave strongly come from the community support in flooding event,” Lin said.
“The residents volunteered to help each other during the flooding and the recovery of the community afterwards. The coffee shops are closed, and the owners give out free warm coffee and food to the community. The glory of humanity in this town was shown at that time. This is the kind of support that will not happen in a big city.”
One of the reasons that Lin decided to move to Roma, Australia was climate change. Her home city had become too hot and uncomfortable to live in. The hope is that the same fate will not follow her to Roma.
The cultural fabric of regional towns benefits greatly from migrants and people with diverse backgrounds. But culturally and linguistically diverse people are one of the groups who are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They face information gaps due to language barriers and unfamiliarity with local systems during extreme weather events.
Scientists predict that migration will continue to increase as the Earth gets hotter. However, society has not yet developed a sufficient understanding of climate-induced immigration and climate refugees are still at a marginalised position in international policies.
With the increasing impact of climate change, young people are facing a future of more severe and frequent natural disasters. Despite being the generation, most affected by climate change, young people often lack representation in decision-making processes related to this issue. As a result, many are becoming increasing anxious as they realize that the older generation and the government are not taking effective action.
However, in rural areas, where young people are considered most vulnerable to climate change, many are showing composure, possibly indifference, in the face of these challenges. Lawson is 12 years old and lives in Roma. He is stoic and resilient in the face of the huge challenges his generation will face.
“You cannot fix climate change because it is a natural thing,” he said. Lawson frowns and rubs his thumbs as he thinks about a topic that is hardly mentioned in this town.
He continued, “If you stress too much, it’s not going to help your situation. And you’ve got to think before trying to stress out. Otherwise, if you stress, that’s when problem can happen.”
Despite not being stressed out by climate change, Lawson believes the issue is essential for the education system to address. He thinks that young people need to be taught about climate change, as they often lack awareness of its effects, especially in rural region. If youth don’t understand climate change, the odds are they won’t be proactive decision makers in climate change and less likely to engage in climate actions. To make the course effective, Lawson suggests that the course need to be fun and engaging, potentially through using journalism practice.
After the 2012 flooding, the Maranoa Council sought to install a flood levee, to protect the town from the future climate change challenges. Lawson is not optimistic about the city council’s preparation for climate change, but despite their differences in age and culture, he and Lin agree on the power of the unique spirit of community support in Roma. The town will try their best to help each other in the future incidents to make sure no one will go through the struggle.
The water cycle connects every living being on Earth, a reminder that humans and any life forms are all interconnected and share a common future. It doesn't discriminate against race, age, religion, or social status - it affects everyone. Lawson, Lin, and Regina are all representative of groups who are ostracized from decision-making process on climate change but, living on the edge of the Balonne River, they are all acutely aware of the power that the water and climate change have over their lives and communities. In the face of this global challenge, people must break down the boundaries that divide each other and come work together as a united community. Respecting and learning from the knowledge of First Nations people, listening to the experiences of migrants, and looking to young people for innovation and hope: by doing so, we can ensure that our river, our planet, will continue to flow for generations to come.