Getting good water supplies in remote Indigenous communities

Internationally, it is recognised that small communities experience greater challenges in maintaining reliable water supply and quality than their larger counterparts. Regional Australian communities face these challenges too, particularly in small, remote settlements.  In remote Australia, choices of water source are often limited. Vast distances limit external services, technologies can be unsuitable to local conditions and residents’ skills and capabilities are frequently underutilised.  Many systemic water supply failures can be traced back to a lack of targeted recurrent investment, care and attention, resident involvement and ownership, appropriate support and forward planning to effectively manage the risks to community water supplies.  The end result is that small homelands and even larger communities are running out of water, or are inadvertently reliant on poor quality supplies.

After thirty plus years of settlement and little recurrent funding or continuity in ongoing management, many of these community water supplies are experiencing problems with water quantity and quality, impacting on the service life of infrastructure, the utility of household hardware and the health of residents.

The true cost of this ‘failure management’ is unavoidable long delays for residents between problem identification and response, often without water, and higher capital and maintenance costs for governments.  There is both a need and an opportunity to harness local skills and capacity through developing local responses to water risks and linking these to regionalised support, to provide operational continuity for remote community water supplies.

Historical context

In many of the nearly 1200 remote communities and outstations dotted across Australia, extraction of water for small community supplies is often through ageing stock bores or informal surface water extraction.  During the 1970s, many Aboriginal people moved back to traditional homelands, settling near existing water sources such as old cattle station and stock route bores.  Investment in infrastructure since that time by governments in housing, roads, schools, clinics and community centres have fortified these settlements across remote parts of the country, with water supply characterised by ad-hoc capital investment for breakdown replacement and little investment in recurrent operations and maintenance into the future.

Current situation

Nationally, over half the population of discrete Aboriginal communities rely on groundwater for their water supply, an estimated 48 511 people, living in 694 locations nationwide. There is a growing body of evidence that community water supplies are under-maintained, and available quantities in many locations are in decline.  Groundwaters in arid areas also commonly consist of high concentrations of minerals, often described as ‘hard water’, that can cause problems for infrastructure such as rapid failure of hot water systems, air conditioners, toilet cisterns, etc. and are unsuitable for many urban household technologies designed for softer waters.  Residents often make minor band-aid improvements with available skills and little support. Infrastructure is most often only funded and replaced if it has catastrophically failed, and governments are forced to ‘bail out’ a failed water supply at great expense. Keeping water supplies functioning in an affordable and efficient way in Australia’s remotest areas appears to have been systematically unaddressed.

Exceptions may exist in few cases, perhaps where communities near regional centres have been connected to town supplies, or larger communities may have secured ongoing maintenance by a recurrently funded service provider. However, 2007 ABS national survey data shows that over half of the discrete Indigenous community population (54%) living in settlements with greater than 50 residents are experiencing interruptions to their water supply; suggesting that even in these ‘larger’ Indigenous communities under service delivery regimes, there are largely unaddressed water supply challenges.

Arguably, poor planning has been a contributing factor to depletion of bore water sources; the bulk purchasing and installation of water-intensive technologies without consideration for the applicability to local living environments (such as the urban flush toilet, evaporative air conditioners, etc). The challenge in remote settlements is to utilise smarter (lower cost, more efficient, user-friendly) and more regionally-appropriate (to climate, geography, local skills) ways of gaining the basic services required to support healthy lifestyles, without the negative consequences of wasting valuable water and economic resources.

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