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By Huw Kingston

Posted: June 9, 2024


This piece, Flow, written by ATTA Ambassador & Media Member Huw Kingston, was originally commissioned to accompany the release of the documentary movie River, directed by Jen Peedom.

Crossing the shaky suspension bridge, I watched a rivulet of water run down Richard Tognetti’s violin case. At a metal clasp it braided, as rivers do, before confluencing below the buckle. Then into freefall, a tiny cascade dropping five metres to the Snowy river below.

That rain was falling late on a dull September afternoon as Tognetti and I trudged into the gloom. We had plans for a few days’ backcountry skiing, hopes for an improvement in the weather and thoughts of high jinks with a violin.

We woke the following morning to blue skies and, after brewing coffee for need and porridge for necessity, skied away from our camp and climbed onto the main ridge of the Snowy Mountains.

After skiing a couple of glorious runs on sun-softened snow, Richard swapped ski poles for the violin. Then, as a celebration of mountains and rivers everywhere, in surely one of the finest venues he had ever played, he took off, linking turn after tune after turn.

The rainwater that had fallen from the violin case the day before, dropped into the only section of the Snowy River still running free, a meagre stretch below the slopes of Mount Kosciuszko. How long, I wondered, would it take that water to travel 400 kilometres to the sea at Marlo? Guthega Dam would hold those molecules first, then Island Bend.

If they did escape beyond those walls, they might bounce down into the expanse of Lake Jindabyne. Here they could be held for months or years before gaining freedom through a release into the Snowy below Jindabyne Dam. The ingenuity of the Snowy Scheme meant even that was no guarantee. Tunnels and pumps might take that water far from its natural course, under and across the mountains and away into arid lands to nourish cotton, rice or almonds.

Just two months later, in the warmth of late spring, I paddled the Snowy River below that final dam in Jindabyne, astounded by the terrain. Deep in the gorges, one rapid catapulted me out of my craft. I swam, pinballing off rocks that hurt me despite the cushioning of the water piling onto the smooth, waterworn, granite boulders.

For decades, a miserable 1 per cent of natural flow was allowed to dribble down this artery. The last 20 years have seen this increase towards a fifth, thanks to a huge campaign in the ’90s to save the Snowy. But water that flows from a dam is not the same as water that flows naturally. It is often colder, taken from the bottom of a pondage and lower in nutrients. Such water impacts the natural biorhythms of the waterway below.

At camp, a pair of bee-eaters entertained us all afternoon, flitting about the branches of a single, dead gum. Platypus popped up for a look from the pool below our tents and a flightless emu looked up longingly at those that could. A pair of dingos looked on nonchalantly. Had the water from Richard’s violin case yet arrived in this part of the Snowy, I wondered? Or was it still making its way uncertainly down the river?

When that 1 per cent did flow, it was far from enough to sustain life on the river. Weeds choked former rapids and, having nowhere to swim, fish died away, as did the birds that fed on them.

Freshwater makes up less than 1 per cent of the water on the earth’s surface. That 1 per cent must sustain not just us, but every animal, insect and plant that exists, grows and dies on this planet. We ask much of that 1 per cent, perhaps too much.

Deified rivers. Drained rivers. Dramatic rivers. Dammed rivers. Diverted rivers. Defiled rivers. Dry rivers. Disputed rivers. Desert rivers. We cross them, stop them, travel on them, drink from them, trade on them, fish them, swim in them, worship them, fear them, bridge them, tunnel them. Flowing or ephemeral, fresh or salted, tepid or iced. We know they bring us life and lift our spirits. Too often we return the favour with abuse.

Globally it is estimated that less than a third of the 177 rivers longer than 1000 kilometres still flow free, remaining untainted by blockage or diversion. One could be optimistic, looking at a glass a third full. But every year one or more of these 177 rivers swaps sides on the ledger. The threats to our wild and free-flowing rivers are ever present.

In Australia, the major Lake Eyre basin rivers – the Warburton, Georgina, Eyre, Diamantina, Cooper, Thompson – are some of the few Australian rivers untouched by dams, weirs and flood control. An integrity saved by the fact they so rarely flow naturally.

Early in 2019 two massive rain events hit northern Queensland. Over the following months floodwaters soaked south for thousands of kilometres toward Lake Eyre/Kati Thanda, Australia’s lowest point and largest lake. A lake that rarely holds water, the desert absorbing any flow as it travels towards it.

I saw no-one for the week I kayaked upon the flooding Warburton. But I saw birds by the thousand, incredible in their variety and mass. Squadrons of pelicans grunted as they strained to take off in front of my boat. Kites whistled above flocks of squawking corellas, decorating riverside trees like white baubles. Herons nagged, bitterns chuckled, cormorants dived. Feathers floated down the fast-flowing, caramel-hued waters or caught in the coolabah branches dipping into them.

There are mysteries of rivers here. How do those birds know the river is flowing? How do they judge when is the right time to arrive? How do they calculate their landing time in order to allow enough fish to breed and grow into worthwhile meals for the masses?

It was easy to become lost in the life on the river, down below the level of the surrounding land. But camp each night would remind me exactly where I was. With the tent perched atop a dune, the desert stretched endlessly away into the dunes and the gibber plains.

Driving home, I crossed the Murray River. The subject of so many books, articles, commissions, acts of parliament, acts of bastardry. How we finally and finely balance the threats and opportunities our longest river system endures and offers will be a measure for our future. It is a waterway in peril.

When we dam a river how much do we damn it? The thin blue lines that vein any map of Australia are our life. We do well to remember that each time we fill a water glass or savour the juice from a handful of grapes.

Rivers are beautifully dangerous. Who has not stood in awe at the edge of a waterfall? Or stared, mesmerised, at the churning rapids of a flooded mountain creek or the conveyor belt of a wide river moving fast across a floodplain? Rivers are also destructively dangerous, wiping so much from their path when they choose that way.

Swimming only recently through a deep, narrow chasm in Central Australia, it was easy to remember that if water can create such spectacular defiles over millions of years, then it can, with ease, flick a human any which way it wants in seconds.

For nearly four decades I have travelled through mountains. While respecting and dodging their many dangers, it is rivers that have most often caught me out. It can be too easy to underestimate the power of their flow, too easy to challenge their water. The Big River in Victoria, which is actually rather small, held me under for too long – far too long – one winter. The flow swept my legs from under me when trying to cross its mere 10 metre width. In the wilderness of South West Tasmania, a 250 metre swim across an estuarine river, towing a backpack on an inflatable ring, proved too far, too cold. My body shut down in a manner the like of which I had never experienced.

Children, like most of us once did, spend hours trying to divert little streams or dam little creeks. It entertains the engineer in us all. The fish traps on the Barwon River in Brewarrina are perhaps the oldest man-made structure on earth. Australian First Nations people understood that you could divert a little, play a little, but never to hold back the river.

Our childhood efforts were invariably doomed to failure, but we were in good company. Between 2005 and 2013, 173 dam failures were reported in the US alone. The 1975 failure of the Banqiao Dam in China killed an estimated 171,000 people and made 11 million people homeless. Under international humanitarian law, dams are considered installations containing dangerous forces. The power of water will eventually, always, overpower that of humans.

In a world of rising population and rising temperature, it is easy to see the problems, but less easy to see the solutions. We need water to drink, to generate power, to cultivate food. We know that in many places, Australia included, climate change will bring less rainfall. Perhaps we should treat water as a treat, like a good wine? Use it with respect, use it in moderation. We hear very little about saving water, at home or in industry. Perhaps it is too cheap? Perhaps we need to look much more closely at what we take and what we need? A new coalmine is not just a contributor to global warming, it is a contributor to national draining. Can we really sustain suburbs of swimming pools? Can we afford to allow our waterways to die under blankets of algae?

Some rivers, like the Snowy, are dammed in their upper reaches. Others have blockages down low. The Shoalhaven River flows free for all but the last kilometres of its long journey through southern NSW.

Our canoe trip, in November last year, was the first day in 2020 that the Shoalhaven gorge had been open. Flames, floods and fever all to blame for the long closure. We paddled up into the gorge from Tallowa Dam, an embankment that has held back the waters of the Shoalhaven for half a century. It is possibly the finest flatwater paddle in NSW, a paddle that exists only because of the dam.

But for 150 kilometres to that dam, no road touches the banks of the Shoalhaven. It runs, rages, boils and twists through deep gorges and wild rapids before slowing to a crawl and then a stop in the backwaters of Lake Yarrunga.

The Shoalhaven gorge was a barrier of sorts to the massive Currowan fire that ate its way north through Morton National Park, travelling further than the length of the river. A fire that hit my own little town early in January 2020. Throughout that month, the nights passed with the sky glowing red from fires burning in the deep gullies of the national park. The sound of sirens, the sight and smell of smoke, were our black summer.

Finally in early February, we rejoiced and relaxed as torrential rain hosed the fires, filled dams and drenched the blackened land. The Shoalhaven flooded. While the deluge was welcome, the devastated country along the length of the Shoalhaven offered no protection to the now bare ground. Countless tonnes of soil and ash washed straight into the river, accelerating the siltation and shallowing process that affects all dammed water bodies. Sandy beaches were now knee deep in mud. Individual leaves and sticks were left high and dry on mud plinths as mini sculpture parks while in the backwaters, burnt, dead tree trunks stood tall in now deep water.

What joy there is to be upon a wild river. A river that flows freely for every day of every year. A river where you know that each drop has followed a natural course, not held back by dams or diverted to irrigation channels, not turned turbines or been spat out of a tap.

Thirty five years ago, I paddled the Franklin River for the first time. That journey into Tasmania’s wild south-west was just a few years after the river was saved from the dam builders. I was a backpacker having a fun year in Australia, not the immigrant I became. That river changed my life in ways I am still understanding. Many wild places have taken my breath away, but the Franklin nearly suffocated me in its power, its beauty, its freedom.

“A brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people,” was how Robin Grey described the Franklin. Was he, the Tasmanian Premier at the height of the campaign to save the river, truly blind or just unwilling to see?

Texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism talk of the rivers of paradise – Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates – flowing with water, wine, milk and honey. Hindus revere Mother Ganga. Greek mythology offers the rivers running through the underworld – Acheron, Styx, Lethe, Phlegethon and Cocytus.

The cleverness and curse of humanity is our adaptability to change. So we build our nests, shit in them and then adapt to live in the mess we create. By degrees we accept less. We accept to swim in once clear waterways now turbid with silt or to travel down rivers glistening with plastic. Shouldn’t we fight harder to hold onto our rivers of paradise, to stop creating more rivers of hell?

Darwin’s final paragraph of On the Origin of Species is written as he looks out across a river from a “tangled bank” and marvels at the variety of life. For the survival of the species, perhaps we too need to look out from such a riverbank and contemplate what we need, what we have lost and what we must do.