The quality of water in a small Australian town has become so filthy from the drought that people are breaking out in rashes just from taking a shower.
The water in Collarenebri, in north western New South Wales, has been getting worse over the past year, and the Barwon River – which residents depend on – has completely stopped flowing.
Now the town is without any clean water, and with the nearest supermarket more than a two-hour drive away, the 650 people who live there are banking their survival on volunteers bringing in deliveries of bottled water.
Just taking a shower in the water at Collarenebri can be damaging to the skin of residents and visitors (pictured is a volunteer who arrived in town to deliver water. The man claims he had only a five-minute shower before he was covered in an itchy rash)
Collarenebri is an eight-and-a-half hour drive north-west of Sydney
Dead fish are seen decomposing where the Barwon River once flowed (pictured)
The donated bottled water is being brought in by volunteers working with social justice groups FIRE and Dignity Water, with people coming from as far away as Sydney, more than an eight-hour drive to the south.
As well as the sustained drought, locals blame their water woes on large-scale cotton farmers pumping too much water from the river to use on their properties.
The river is the only viable water source for locals because there is no bore in the town, and as levels have dropped, it has become sludgy and tainted with the bodies of dead birds and fish.
It’s got green algae in it, and it smells when it comes out of the taps.
And while there is a filtration system available for tap water, locals say it is largely ineffective.
Those who drink it can become violently ill, and showering in the water for just a few minutes can leave a person covered in tiny, itchy bite marks.
Residents Jake and Louise Flick said in a video there were a ‘whole list of problems’ that would affect people drinking the local water.
‘You cant even drink the water at home,’ Louise said.
‘You get kidney infections, or bladder infections. [There are] a lot of bugs, you’ll start to get little lumps on the skin.’
Jake and Louise Flick (pictured) say people have contracted kidney and bladder infections from drinking the tap water
Townspeople are devastated at the loss of the river (pictured is a rotting fish where the river once was) which sustained their lifestyle
One of the volunteers delivering bottled water to Collarenebri lifted his shirt to reveal red welts and a rash across his chest and back that broke out after a five-minute shower.
Raymond Weatherall, who grew up in Collarenebri and visits regularly, says he doesn’t shower in town, nor does he allow his young daughters, aged one to seven, to.
‘We had a shower when we got to Walgett [on the weekend] and you could smell [the water] – it left a weird feeling on your skin when you rubbed it. You could taste the metals,’ he said.
‘When we go to Collarenebri, I’ll have a shower in Moree before I leave, and I’ll stop there again to shower [on the way back].’
The Barwon River, which the town of Collarenebri depends on for drinking water, stopped flowing about eight weeks ago and has nearly completely dried up (pictured)
The Barwon River (pictured in 2013) is part of the Murray Darling river system. It has dried out due to drought conditions and commercial cotton farming
Alison Hinch (left) says the dried up river is having a devastating effect on the elders of the community
With residents entirely dependent on bottled water to drink, volunteers have been arriving in town every two weeks carrying thousands of litres of water.
Each person is given 20 litres, and this must last them until the next visit.
Photographs show the Barwon River once overflowing with fresh, clean water cascading down from one level to another.
Now, in the same place, there is only rocks and dry dirt, surrounding a puddle of water, which makes up the entire drinking supply.
Barwon MP Roy Butler said the water crisis was ‘created by government mismanagement and exacerbated by drought’.
‘Government is responsible for managing and regulating our river system to look after all stakeholders; communities, agriculture and environment,’ he said.
‘It’s distressing for residents in Collarenebri to see a Cayman Islands-based company make a $50 million profit from the sale of water when they’ve got no water to drink.
‘We’ve also seen generous residents of other towns donate bottled water to Collarenebri, which is something the state government should have been funding and facilitating since this started last year.’
Local MP Roy Butler says he has asked Water Minister Melinda Pavey to visit the town and see what she can do to help, but his invitation is yet to be accepted
Local resident, Kevin Charity, said that when the water started to drop, employment prospects and the standard of living fell significantly in the area, prompting many to leave town.
Mr Charity says the main street of Collarenebri is becoming a ghost town, with shops boarded up everywhere. All that remains are basic necessities like a post office, food market, butcher, service station, a mechanic and a rural supplies company.
Two shopfronts remain, both used for government services, and there is a hotel and a takeaway.
On one side of the street, only three stores are open – the rest have been boarded up.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Collarenebri is dependent on the Barwon River, which is connected to the Murray-Darling.
Drought conditions and commercial cotton farming in the area has used up a great deal of the water, and the river has stopped flowing.
As a result, the remaining water has grown stagnant and is beginning to grow algae, which makes it unsafe for consumption.
The government is not funding any extra filtering or water deliveries so townspeople rely on volunteers to bring bottled water in.
Mr Charity believes for anything to change, the cotton crops, which require excessive amounts of water to grow, need to be moved to an area where there is more rainfall.
‘What happens if Collarenebri runs out of water completely,’ he said. ‘All we have is what is left in the river and it is decreasing alarmingly.
‘The thing I do not understand is why cotton is grown in what is a very arid country.
‘Cotton fields need to be flooded with water. There is not enough water available for this practice. Wheat would be OK because it is predominately a dry country crop.’
Collarenebri is currently at level five water restrictions, meaning no land can be watered, and cleaning of car windows, windscreens, number plates and mirrors can be done for safety, but only using a bucket.
The drying of the river has forced some to move out of town and many others face the same fate if something is not done (pictured is the river flowing in June 2013)
The only water left is stagnant and tainted with algae and dead fish. Locals are reliant on fortnightly donations of bottled water just to survive
Mr Weatherall, who is an Aboriginal man, said watching his family battle to stay on the land they’ve always called home is heartwrenching.
‘At Easter I went home and I couldn’t get any fish to bring back down to eat on Good Friday,’ he said.
‘My family who live there are really disheartened, They don’t know what to do. You don’t want people to move off their land.
‘There’s nothing to look forward to. They’re thinking about moving away from where their ancestors have been since the first sunrise.’
Most of the townspeople are unemployed, and live below the poverty line. Mr Weatherall says that is usually fine because the people of Collarenebri typically live off the land and don’t need much money – but without the river flowing, their food sources are drying up.
The area used to host big ceremonies for the Indigenous people, though they are few and far between now.
The father-of-five says he, and his relatives find hope in the groups that accompany him home to deliver bottled water to his community.
Local MP Roy Butler said the crisis had been created by government mismanagement (pictured is the Barwon River)
And despite everything that is happening, the local community stop and chat with the volunteers, and believe things will get better.
‘That’s the one thing we have to be, is hopeful things will turn around,’ he said. ‘Otherwise people would just give up and probably die.’
As well as water problems, residents have been affected by dehydration as temperatures soared over summer, exceeding 45 degrees. The local hospital says they had more cases of dehydration over this summer than any other.
Mr Butler said he has reached out to Water Minister Melinda Pavey to ask her to visit Collarenebri and help fix the problem, but she is yet to accept his invitation.
Chris, who works for Walgett Shire Council, says there is nothing wrong with the water, and he is able to drink and shower in it with no troubles.
‘There’s nothing wrong with our water,’ he said. ‘I’ve been drinking water out of our taps for two years.
‘It’s clear, it’s good water, there’s nothing wrong with it.
‘The only time we get bad water is after like a week of rain.’
Daily Mail Australia has contacted the Walgett Shire Council, who look after Collarenebri, for further comment.