By Siobhan Day, Content Specialist, Utility magazine
Accessing clean and reliable drinking water is an issue facing many remote and isolated communities across Australia. Utilising the power of community, smart meter technology, and First Peoples’ knowledge and connection to water and country, a recent project by Griffith University researchers has provided pragmatic and cost-effective options for alternative water management approaches that could secure consistent and long-term supply in these communities.
The first of its kind in Australia, the Remote and Isolated Community Essential Services (RICES) project, led by Dr Cara Beal, Associate Professor, School of Medicine and Cities Research Institute, Griffith University, aimed to explore community-driven frameworks that would enable long-term supply and efficiency of water and water-related energy in remote and isolated Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities.
The implementation of smart meters, which played a pivotal role in the project, used in tandem with community-based water demand strategies such as education, feedback, storytelling, information sharing and encouragement, were shown to be powerful tools in motivating behaviour change and encouraging water efficient practices.
Importantly, the project results found that if communities are given the right information and resources, they can, and will, use less water and energy.
In order to try and address the issue of water accessibility and reliability in these remote and isolated communities, the researchers first needed to understand the challenges they faced.
Unlike their urban counterparts, remote and isolated communities have unique geographical, environmental, political, economic and cultural contexts that must be considered in developing successful water management strategies.
The quality and functionality of household health hardware, such as taps, showers and toilets; a distrust of ‘town’ water due to the frequency of ‘boil alerts’; and significantly higher outdoor water use present additional challenges.
The changing climate produces less reliable and more intense weather patterns, natural disasters, and threats to infrastructure and general health and wellbeing in remote communities.
These factors exacerbate the challenges, making it essential to have community water management strategies that are resilient and sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically.
Project aims and objectives
A response to the need to work with Indigenous communities to explore community-based water demand management strategies that would be suitable for their individual communities, the RICES project naturally involved the entire community – Indigenous representatives, project participants, council staff, water managers, State Government and industry partners.
Four remote and isolated communities across Australia participated in the project, with community engagement activities taking place throughout all stages of the trial.
Activities included individual and group activities, combined and separate community and stakeholder events, and the use of a range of social media and face-to-face communications.
Smart meters, which captured baseline water and energy consumption through state-of-the-art, high-resolution digital meters and logging equipment, were installed at the participating households and proved pivotal to the project.
The data from these meters was used to provide participants with individual feedback of water use, and benchmark their water use with others in the community.
Attempting to capture the breadth and depth of First Peoples’ knowledge and connection to water and country provided researchers with valuable insights into the efficacy of the strategies and enabled them to offer pragmatic options for water management approaches.
A key finding of the project was the need to use a variety of conservation actions concurrently, within a broader water demand management program.
The project findings, as well as previous research in this area, suggest that long-term gains which focus on behaviour change, including community engagement and encouragement activities, are at least, if not more effective than more costly engineering-and technology-specific approaches.
Combining engineering and technology with community engagement, however, proved to be highly effective.
The implementation of smart meters in participant households revealed that one quarter of homes had leaks from household hardware (toilets, showers and taps), showing a need for more adept leak and hardware management from essential service providers.
Perhaps more importantly, the water consumption data and benchmarking strategy proved to be a highly favoured demand management option for project participants, with water reductions of up to 40 per cent of pre-trial consumption achieved in participating communities.
Water-related energy reductions of between 25 per cent and 65 per cent of pre-trial consumption were estimated.
The popularity of individualised water use feedback, including comparisons with the water use of other households in all four communities involved – from both the community and council/service provider perspective – shows that using data meaningfully, through smart meters and simple number crunching, can have a powerful impact on water management.
However, researchers are keen to note that long-term reductions will require sustained and positive efforts from councils and essential service providers.
Participants were also generally in favour of such community-based water demand management strategies, such as council-led community workshops, water conservation education, and community announcements about water use and ways to save water.
The final report for the RICES project, Exploring community-based water management options for remote Australia, merges these insights into a suggested framework for community-based water demand management approaches in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Any approach must be built around community involvement, with particular importance given to involving Indigenous representatives from the start.
Education (e.g. water efficiency programs, community workshops and water stories) and encouragement measures (e.g. smart meters to benchmark household water use, mark individual water use and weekly usage community notices) are integral and should increase over time.
In order for the collaboration to be truly effective, local, state and federal governments must budget sufficient community engagement costs into any program development and tailor these programs to suit the individual limitations and opportunities within each community.
Ongoing collaboration between councils and/or service providers and communities are essential.
Equal and ongoing collaboration must take place between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and council and service providers in the transition toward an independent, resilient and sustainable water supply.