This last year has seen an interesting swing in the rainfall patterns in Australia. Vast areas of land have now been under water several times through the year. The Eastern half of the continent has received enormous volumes of water into a much depleted water system. Years without rain and a growing demand for water from irrigators and cities have taken so much from the river and underground basins. Not only the empty underground water reserves, but dropping river levels, have impacted on very sensitive ecosystems known as the wetlands. The eastern water system comprises mainly of two basins. The first and most obvious one is the Murray Darling river basin which catches its water of the western inland side of the Great Dividing Range that runs the full north south length of the eastern sea board. Most of the south eastern corner of the continent is fed by this river system and is very much the food bowl of Australia. The growing question of this river is if it can hold out against the demands of a population of over twenty million people who find it difficult to limit their needs. The other basin is the Great Artesian Basin found beneath an inland salt lake known as Lake Eyre. Most of the time this lake is a salt pan and lies beneath sea level by several metres. When the monsoons and cyclones send their rain further south the lake fills and the traditionally red centre becomes a green oasis for a while. Birds and fish return and after a short while the water drains into the great artesian basin beneath and the hot red centre returns. At present this basin is only a fraction over half full, even after the first floods of last year.
One of the riddles for meteorologists is that the rains have returned a little outside of the predicted weather patterns. We were expecting the drought to continue for another few years at least. Several explanations are offered by scientists. One says that this is a cyclical change in the tropical Pacific Ocean oscillation pattern every three to seven years. One phase is known as El Nino which brings dry climate to Australia and the other phase is known as La Nina which brings the rains to us. The effects of the El Niño oscillation pattern are actually felt throughout the world and with global warming it is possible that this rhythm has shifted too. With this comes the observation or question if the monsoon patterns are moving further south. This is also a known occurrence. For example around eight thousand years ago the rain patterns in Africa shifted and created a wonderful Mediterranean type climate in northern Africa and the Sahara desert became a lush bowl of civilization that led to the Dogon culture building cities and places of learning in the lost Timbuktu 2000 years before the rise of the Egyptian culture. Today’s city of Timbuktu is but a remnant of that time. Once the patterns shifted back around 4000BCE the desert returned to North Africa. Is there a similar pattern happening in Australia? Certainly many climate and science programmes on the television are discussing this possibility.
We can focus on the tragic impact of the floods on communities and people whose lives have literally been washed away several times. Some people are cleaning up their towns and homes for the fifth or sixth time in as many months. Farmers are completely washed out as what could have been a bumper harvest now rots along with drowned animals under water, pushing food prices upwards around the country. International insurance companies are reeling in their predictions of the enormous amounts of money that will be needed to sort this crisis out.
From an environmental and indigenous point of view this could all be seen from another aspect. The aboriginal people have a spirituality that works through ritual and fire management of the environment. Their culture keeps an interesting balance between the impact of humanity on the environment and the needs of the ecosystem to remain strong and vital. A deeply connected mutuality of caring for each other is maintained. We may live on the earth and in return we have a sacred commission to care and tend for creation. The indigenous people have watched how, over a short two hundred years, the western cultures have come and upset this balance without showing any deeper sense of caring for the environment beyond the very recent environmental re-greening of the landscape and creating more reserves of water for our consumption. Where have we taken the psychic and spiritual impact of our culture on the country into account and shown a constructive caring for her vitality? While the flood and droughts have come and gone, never has there been so many people dependant on the life of the river. So how can the river be strengthened to now live in balance with the increasing needs of the people?
At first the Aboriginal people have said it is up to us who have caused the imbalance to take the situation into hand and do something about it, as this is the right way of things .All this results in is more political time wasting and money exchanges while the country slowly thirsts and withers. Many people in Australia do not even have a day to day contact with the river as Australia is probably unique as a continent in that there is no major city built on the river. People therefore do not witness the health of the river. The river is dying and the basin is falling apart. Here in South Australia the Murray River joins the Southern Ocean and has a number of very finely balanced water ecosystems including a very long thin water basin known as the Coorong. This is the home of the Ngarrindjeri people, who have watched their part of the river literally disappear into dust as the western political systems use up all the water in the east for farmers and irrigators leaving less than a bare minimum to come down to the Murray mouth.
Major Sumner, Ngarrindjeri elder from the Coorong (Kurangk), said it is time for us to bring back the rain dances. This came at the time when the government was thinking of flooding the lower Murray basin and the lakes with sea water and reversing the whole river flow and thereby changing it into a salt water lake. He thought of the Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin or River Country Spirit Ceremony. He said let us dance the Spirit of the River and the Country and make the rivers flow again to heal the rivers, lakes, wetlands and the Coorong. He made contact with the ten nations who live along the main water course of the Darling and Murray rivers which stretch right up into Queensland from South Australia. They arranged that they would travel to each nation’s home and together they would dance the rain dances. Starting up in Queensland they would take ten days and travel downstream to gather together, nation by nation. By the time they reached the Coorong of his own home he envisioned ten different nations dancing at the Murray River mouth.
And so it was that at Easter time 2010 a caravan of people set off to sit on the earth along the river and sing the rain in. Some of the congregation of The Christian Community planned to go along the whole journey but ended up joining them for the last days in South Australia. Major Sumner found that some nations came to the Ringbalin or Spirit Dance but didn’t know their rain dances and had to join in those of other nations. Some groups only had a handful of people. Not all the nations could travel down the river and by the time we reached the Murray mouth only four groups were there. It has awakened an interest in the nations of the Riverland to now learn their dances and songs and be far more present in the ceremony this year. It has also called to those of us of European descent, now living on the river, to seek ways to also bring our ceremonial and spiritual help towards the growing of the river to meet the needs of her people today. With no scientific proof available we can only stand in front of this event and the returned rains and ask: did it work?
Even though there is water everywhere, except in much of Western Australia, the drought takes several years to be broken as the vitality of the earth, trees and ecosystems need to recover their health before it is truly over. However, it is an interesting imagination to follow of an inland sea, currently the largest it has ever been in known history, returning on a permanent basis and the greening of the red centre into a larger area that could sustain human settlement. The weather patterns changing and the cyclones moving south, supported by a return of the rain dances and the inclusion of the western peoples joining in of ritual land management may help the water in this country to stabilize. Obviously human settlement will have to adjust its style in a changed ecosystem. Whether this huge climatic and environmental change will happen or whether we will continue in a traditional oscillation between wet and dry phases has to be left to history to tell.
Posted by Martin Samson