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When the River Runs Dry (ATOM Study Guide)

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When the River Runs Dry (Rory McLeod, 2019) is a 54-minute documentary film about the mass fish kills at Menindee, in western New South Wales, on the Darling River, that shocked Australia in 2019.

In January 2019 viral videos showed grown men near Menindee weeping as they held decades-old Murray Cod that had perished in the green oxygen-starved soup that is all that remained of the Darling River.

Australians were horrified by the news that the river, known as the Barka to its people, was in a state of ecological collapse.

Politicians blamed drought. Ecologists and water management experts placed the blame firmly on the over-allocation and over-extraction of water - sometimes illegal - by cotton growers upstream.

Fertiliser and other chemical runoff from cotton farms have made the water nutrient rich, and a zero river flow, coupled with high temperatures, has fuelled toxic blooms of cyano-bacteria, blue-green algae, in the river. The fish kill occurred when a sudden cool snap killed off the algae and as it decomposed, it robbed the water of dissolved oxygen. Fish that had survived many droughts over decades died in their hundreds of thousands.

These tragic events have shone a spotlight on the appalling plans of the NSW Government and the cotton industry. These plans include the 'decommissioning' of the Menindee Lakes - a 30 million year-old lake system, much of it within a National Park - in order to achieve 'water savings' (through reduced evaporation), that will reduce the need for expensive buy-backs of over-allocated water licences.

Urgent calls were made for a Royal Commission as Australians began to suspect that the rules governing the Murray Darling Basin overwhelmingly serve agribusiness interests to the detriment of the environment and downstream communities.

This documentary film was born on that horrible first day, when the images of dead fish came before us. We wanted to document this pivotal moment in Australia's environmental history, in the hope that we can pull together as a nation to bring this immense, beautiful and remote river system back from the brink of catastrophe. We wanted to document the impact of these events - and the inexorable plans of the NSW Government and Big Cotton over many years - on the people of the Darling River.

In particular, we seek to bring Aboriginal voices to the fore. The Barkindji are the People of the River. They have been dispossessed and marginalised for almost a hundred and seventy years. They survived because of the Barka, the Darling River, and now that is being taken too.

This film is both a celebration of the resilience of people and nature, and a call to arms. The Barkindji cannot afford to lose this fight. Australia cannot afford to lose this fight.

Curriculum Links

The film explores five significant themes:

1. The state of the Darling River at Menindee
2. The significance of the river to Indigenous people
3. The reasons for the fish kill events
4. The contribution of the irrigated cotton industry and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to the parlous state of the river
5. Possible solutions to the problems that exist

The film assumes a lot of pre-existing knowledge about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the working of the irrigated cotton industry. There are various Appendixes that explain key ideas at appropriate points of the film, if needed. The relevance of each of these is indicated at the appropriate time. If students have a detailed knowledge of the plan, they can ignore these Appendixes.

Appendix 1: Why do algal blooms kill fish?
Appendix 2: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan explained
Appendix 3: The economy, Irrigation and cotton The film relies heavily on a large number of brief interview bites.

Teachers might allocate individual students to take responsibility for reporting the comments of individual interviewees to the whole class, as suggested at appropriate times as indicated in the following pages.

When the River Runs Dry is available to stream for 7-day rental, 30-day rental, 1-year rental and lifetime access here. The DVD is also available to purchase here.

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