Despite improvements, residents of remote Indigenous communities continue to experience poor water quality and unreliable sanitation services. Drinking water may be contaminated by microbes or naturally-occurring chemicals and wastewater treatment is poorly maintained.
Equitable access to acceptably treated drinking water is a human right and one of the Sustainable Development Goals. It requires programs that recognise place-based cultural, environmental and economic realities.
Water Supply and Demand Management
In a remote Australian setting, achieving the triple bottom line water sustainability benchmarks of environmental, social and economic sustainability requires both a robust supply and effective demand management approach. However, current water management practices often focus on a supply-driven approach rather than a community-based behaviour change (CWDM) based approach. A change to a more sustainable CWDM based approach can reduce the need for ongoing expensive supply investments, energy demand, and associated direct and indirect costs.
In the short term, this could mean that communities could save money on water and electricity bills (as well as reducing carbon emissions), and in the long run, would lead to a more secure and resilient water supply. This is because CWDM strategies are proven to be more successful at achieving sustained behaviour change in rural and remote settings.
A CWDM strategy that is implemented with the community needs to be inclusive and flexible, taking into consideration all aspects of the community water system. It must be designed to incorporate a broad range of engagement approaches to support the development of a culture of sustainability. This includes addressing the social, cultural and governance dimensions of the system. Providing meaningful and relevant opportunities for participation is essential (Jackson et al 2019b).
It also requires a flexible and innovative enabling environment, which is able to accommodate a variety of approaches to change. This requires a shift from the top-down, hierarchical frameworks of traditional service provision to a more flexible learning approach that recognises the need for genuine collaborative engagement with Indigenous communities (Jackson et al 2018).
The RICES research team piloted a number of CWDM mechanisms in four remote Indigenous communities over 2016 and 2019. These included trials of council delivering water use feedback to households, using smart metering to deliver individualised household water usage alerts and monitoring, and running community workshops on water conservation and encouraging residents to use tap timers, among others.
The results from the pilot demonstrated that a range of community-based behaviour change approaches were feasible in remote Indigenous communities, with each community requiring a unique tailored set of CWDM tools that address the local water security, governance, historical, social and cultural contexts. It is important that the existing enabling environment, including available funds, resources, skills, expertise and previous programs, is taken into account when planning new water CWDM directions for remote Indigenous communities to ensure they are realistic, manage expectations and create community buy-in.
Water conservation is the actions people and organisations take to reduce their water usage, for example taking shorter showers or only using the dishwasher when it is full. It is one of the most important strategies for ensuring long term drinking water security.
Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is strong and the country has a leading role to play in implementing the goals, including in the area of sustainable water management1.
While water services in large cities are generally high quality and affordable, the reality is that a significant number of regional and remote communities struggle with drinking water supply and demand challenges. These issues impact upon the health, economic and social well-being of residents.
Many rural and remote communities rely on rainfall or groundwater to sustain their drinking water supplies. These communities face a range of challenges, from unpredictable climatic conditions to short and long term risk from groundwater contamination, as well as the need to invest in the future provision of secure drinking water services.
Water scarcity and the need for community-led solutions to address water conservation and water supply risks is an urgent issue in regional and remote South Australian regions. A comprehensive stocktake of regional and remote community water services is required to understand the existing arrangements, the level of service currently provided, the short and long-term risks and opportunities for investment in a co-ordinated and strategic manner.
SACOSS welcomes the State Government’s commitment to undertake a stocktake of all ‘self-supplied’ remote communities, with a focus on ensuring their access to safe and reliable drinking water under all circumstances (drought and ‘normal’ times). A comprehensive approach across the state is needed to identify current gaps in water service standards and inform conversations between local communities, state and national governments and service providers about how these gaps can be addressed.
Poor water quality and access is a major driver of the disproportionately higher levels of disease and illness in remote Indigenous communities compared to the non-Indigenous population. The causes are complex and require a whole-of-community approach, but there are also enablers that can support positive changes: people factors (support, training, cultural competence); cross-agency collaboration; funding that is sufficient and sustainable; technology that is fit for place and local people; and taking a systems view of water management.
In remote communities, the ability to provide safe and reliable drinking water is often limited by the capacity of local infrastructure, the ability to access adequate funding and support, and the cultural and environmental conditions under which communities operate.
A number of factors can impact on water quality, including biological contamination from microbes and chemicals resulting from natural and man-made sources20. Biological contamination can be caused by bacteriological organisms such as E coli and Naegleria spp, while chemical contaminants can include heavy metals, pesticides and fertilisers, or organic substances such as cyanobacterial blooms.
Biological and chemical contaminants can be detected using field and laboratory testing. Generally, these tests are carried out on a routine basis at sites that have been established in ‘prescribed areas’ where access to the resource is controlled by the local community under a ‘Water Access Agreement (WAP)’. However, monitoring is also conducted in non-prescribed areas where there are high levels of water use. These data are used to inform decisions about the management of the water resource by water managers, and by other stakeholders.
The SA Water monitoring network is a large, comprehensive system of over 250 locations across the state. Most of these sites are located in prescribed areas, which are defined as regions that have been designated by the government as having high conservation values. This designation is intended to protect and enhance the capacity of the region’s water resources, while allowing for appropriate use.
A major review of the WAPs is conducted every five years to ensure the network is optimised to deliver high quality and relevant data for local decision-making and water management. Sites are regularly relocated to address changes in land use and climate, as well as being modified to account for new threats or risks. The frequency of monitoring is also changed to reflect changing seasonal conditions, to minimise costs and to ensure that a consistent level of data is provided.
Drinking water quality in remote Australian communities is a key issue for people living in rural and remote locations. The Productivity Commission and Infrastructure Australia have both highlighted the need for programs to ensure basic levels of service in these communities. A national database of water quality reporting could help to identify gaps in service, but a number of practical issues need to be addressed before this is possible.
Community-led water demand management programs require a strong partnership between local councils and communities to be effective. They need to be culturally appropriate, sustainable and measurable. They need to involve training of residents in plumbing and in water conservation techniques, and incorporate a holistic approach to community-based water supply.
Structural vulnerabilities exacerbated by climate change are driving a rethink of how we can support remote communities to meet their sustainable development goals (SDGs) and achieve a safe and sustainable water future. This includes a greater emphasis on demand strategies, which can complement existing supply options.
Water treatment is an integral part of the sustainable development goal of clean water and sanitation for all (SDG 6). Water treatment involves the removal of harmful substances in drinking-water, including microbiological and chemical contaminants, which can affect human health. The Safe Drinking Water Act 2011 requires drinking water providers to register with SA Health, develop a risk management plan (RMP) and implement an incident reporting and communication protocol. The RMPs help drinking water providers to monitor, identify and respond to incidents, which may affect the quality of their water supplies.
In remote communities, there are challenges in ensuring the sustainability of water services to support health and well-being outcomes. This is compounded by climate change, which is expected to further increase water scarcity and cause more frequent and intense rainfall events. These extreme weather events can impact the water supply in remote communities, especially in those that rely on surface or groundwater sources.
This is evident in the current situation in Western Australia, where water restrictions have been imposed due to ongoing drought and record-high temperatures. As a result, a large proportion of remote towns have seen their water services suspended and residents are left without access to freshwater.
A sustainable water future for remote Australian communities will depend on a two-pronged approach, with both supply and demand management strategies. This will need to be adapted to the unique cultural, environmental, geographic and socioeconomic contexts of regional, remote and isolated communities, which are often different from urban Australian settings where much demand management work has been developed.