What needs to be done to close the gap in Indigenous water? | Ozwater

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What needs to be done to close the gap in Indigenous water?

Posted 10 May 2018

Access to safe and affordable drinking water for all

Supported by multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the provision of water and wastewater services to remote Indigenous communities. But of the six SDGs relevant to Indigenous water, two hold significant value, according to the University of Queensland Environmental Health Researcher Dr Nina Hall.

Speaking at Ozwater’18, Dr Hall identified SDG 6.1 and SDG 6.2, which aim to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all, and access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030 respectively, as most fitting.  

From this, Dr Hall said there are five essentials for remote WASH service delivery: 

1. People factor: support, training and cultural competence. This involves mentoring on-ground staff to bring knowledge, cultural competencies and support to Indigenous communities.  

2. Cross agency collaboration of regulators, funders, state and local government. This involves the right partnership between government, regulators, funders and ground delivery.  

3. Technology that is fit for place, fit for purpose and fit for people. This needs to be appropriate and include options for backup.  

4. Need for funding as these communities are still dependant on grant programs offered by governments.  

5. Being part of a bigger system. This includes proper planning of a system and considering things like climatic conditions before rolling it out.

“Living remotely can bring challenges. Health for many remote Aboriginal communities is compromised, and access to clean water and functional sewerage are key areas for action and need to be addressed,” Dr Hall said.  

According to Dr Hall, these communities face some challenges to drinking water such as weakened monitoring regimes due to the remote locations and minimal staff; contaminations from microbes and naturally occurring elements found in bore water; a high turnover of skilled water and wastewater management staff on ground in communities; as well as unacceptable taste and color with implications on consumption of drinking bore water. 

“Drinking water can meet goals but it also has to meet standards in terms of how it smells, looks like, etc. What we’re looking to have is high quality, safe and potable water for all communities,” she said. 

As for wastewater treatment, Dr Hall said many of these infrastructures don’t see through their useful life. he communities were often not supported with operation maintenance and monitoring, as they weren’t equipped with the necessary technical knowledge and skills. 

“People want to live on country and the delivery of water and wastewater needs to be sustainable long term for this to happen. We have to ensure that nobody gets left behind,” Dr Hall said. 

Also speaking at Ozwater’18, Water Corporation CEO Sue Murphy said strategies and policies need to be put in place with a livability lens over it. 

“What matters is having a livability lens over an approach because every community has a different story and issues. It’s about having grassroots, a pipeline of the right people and the right execution strategy,” she said. 

Murphy mentioned actions need to be taken to achieve positive outcomes, one of which should be a focus on inclusion instead of employment within these communities. 

“Of 274 remote communities in Western Australia, only 60% receive government funding. About 108 of them are self-supplied when it comes to servicing. So, we do not need to try and replicate what has worked [with other communities] but listen to each community’s individual needs and work on delivering something to match it,” she said.  

Cairns Regional Council Water and Waste Department General Manager Graham O’Byrne said one of the ways to address the problem is to look at operation, capability and capacity from an operational perspective. 

“Sixteen of the 77 local regional councils in Queensland receive no revenue and are reliant on funding from the government,” he said. 

According to O’Byrne, Indigenous council challenges around capability include the lack of experience, lack of ongoing support mechanisms and having only a couple of qualified operators. In terms of capacity, he said challenges exist around a lack of staff numbers and retention and succession planning.  

“We’re working on a fresh approach to engage with operators based on an operational needs assessment, then formulating an action plan developed in collaboration with the communities. This will be followed by the delivery and implementation, in line with cultural values and support to build internal capabilities and self sustainability,” he said. 

“Engagement with community influencers is the key; you need to focus on building the initial trust so that you can work on a long-term strategy and not short-term fixtures.”

10 May marks the last of the three Ozwater’18 conference days in Brisbane, at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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