The Government Is Failing To Deliver Safe Water To Remote Indigenous Communities

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Most of us in Australia probably take for granted the clean and endless supply of water running from our taps.

But did you know that 25,000 people across 99 different locations in Australia, are reportedly accessing water services that contain harmful chemicals, which over a period of time can have irreversible impacts to health. And for larger towns and water systems, the estimated service gap of safe water rises to nearly 200,000 people across more than 115 locations.

What The Preliminary Findings Tell Us

Thanks to a new preliminary report led by the Water Services Association of Australia, there is a clearer picture of how Australia is doing on the waterfront. We’re talking about water with unsafe levels of uranium, arsenic, and nitrates that are nationally present in our groundwater, but if not properly filtered out and consumed over many years can lead to chronic health issues.

The report essentially finds that as a country we are failing to deliver safe water services to First Nations communities. Until now there’s been a huge gap in data to prove this.

Eric Vanweydeveld, the lead author of the report told Junkee that communities above 10,000 people are usually recorded in the national database, but any town below that “we don’t have numbers”.

“So there’s the issue here. When you go to remote Australia, usually it’s less than 10,000 people. We need to address that by understanding the data and the gaps… So that’s really one of the underpinning recommendations,” he said.

From the report, 40 percent of all recorded health issues linked to water were from remote Indigenous communities. First Nations communities have been subjected to government legislation and regulations, which tend to be ineffective and disconnected, since colonisation. The same applies to water guidelines. There are currently no minimum drinking water standards in the Northern Territory.

In Western Australia regulation of drinking water is divided into licensed and unlicensed providers, which means a large number of remote water supply systems aren’t covered under the Water Services Act. And therefore don’t have to be monitored or reported on.

“We are talking on behalf of Indigenous people. We need to be very mindful. They need to drive this because it’s their communities and water is critical for everyone. But especially for Indigenous people. They’re connected to the land and country and water has got a significant role in this. So it’s very important to address this problem to keep them on country for them to practise their cultural values and connection,” Vanweydeveld said.

What Are The Causes For Lack Of Good Water Services?

Vanweydeveld said that with too many stakeholders it’s creating silos for all those involved with safe water delivery.

“If you live in those communities, you’re confused because one day you will see someone doing something on the road a week later, someone else will come from a different department doing something else about the water supply the week after that will be the power supply. I mean, those guys are seeing so many different departments coming at the same time. Like there’s not, it doesn’t seem to be coordinated. So that’s the frustration.”

The preliminary report outlines immediate and critical recommendations for the Commonwealth Government: to fund a $30 million dollar national water quality monitoring program; bring in a voice for First Nations on water quality, and to expand National Water Grid technologies funding into remote communities. Climate change and water supply and demand also needs to be addressed in these remote communities.

“[There’s] so many components into this and it’s not just the money. It’s more complicated, more deep than that. Everyone has to come around the table and work a solution together.

And the government has to play a big role because in those communities, you cannot apply the same logic as regional or cities in Australia. It’s a very different logic and requires a different approach.”