Water sample. Hand in glove collects water in a test tube.

A new report has revealed a minimum investment of $2.2 billion is required to ensure safe water supply for First Nations communities – over 500 of which do not have access to regular water testing.

First Nations communities, particularly in remote areas, are receiving drinking water with levels of uranium, arsenic, fluoride and nitrate that are above levels against the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

Drafted by the peak body for Australian water utilities, the Water Services Association of Australia (WSSA), the report was officially launched by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, in parliament house.

WSSA Executive Director, Adam Lovell, said implementing the safe supply of drinking water through regular testing would require a minimum investment of $2.2 billion.

“We estimate that it will require investment of a minimum of $2.2 billion to bring drinking water in line with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, more when you include replacing old pipes and plumbing,” Mr Lovell said.

The report titled, Closing the Water for People and Communities Gap: Improving Water Services to First Nations Remote Communities, found that:

  • All states and territories should formalise the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines to ensure at least a minimum quality standard is met whether you live in Sydney, Shepparton or Yuendumu 
  • Ongoing significant investment is needed in both water quality monitoring and an innovation fund to develop new technologies that are resilient to climate change impacts, and ideally integrated with renewable energy and digital communications 
  • First Nations communities need a stronger voice in the services they receive. WSSA’s stakeholder mapping shows complex interactions across a myriad of agencies and unclear accountability

The report contains case studies which show that dirty or smelly water, or taps clogged with calcium deposits, cause significant knock on effects for communities beyond drinking water which adds to the urgency of the recommendations.  

However, the report noted several emerging signs of positive action, including:

  • The Western Australian Government is investing in water infrastructure for communities in the Kimberley 
  • In the APY lands in South Australia, plumbing courses are helping communities to maintain their health hardware 
  • In Borroloola in the NT, there has been a significant shift in engagement and a new water treatment facility 
  • In Queensland, the Health Department has been working hard with local Indigenous councils on improving skills of operators of water treatment plants.  

WSAA believes that this is also an opportunity – a time to invest in culturally sensitive skills and training and for First Nations businesses to grow and expand expertise in water services.

“The time to improve this situation is now. The Closing the Gap targets for infrastructure which calls for equitable services and the UN conference on Water and the Sustainable Development Goals in New York in March 2023 is both an opportunity and a call to urgently improve water quality for First Nations communities,” Mr Lovell said.

The full report, Closing the Water for People and Communities Gap: Improving Water Services to First Nations Remote Communities, is available on the WSAA website here.

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