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The Goyder Institute for Water Research has released a comprehensive report outlining the outcomes of the national Working together for better drinking water in the bush forum, which brought together diverse participants from across Australia – from First Nations groups to utility companies – to discuss the issues restricting drinking water supply in remote regions. Here, we take a look at the 12 key action areas identified by the forum that are expected to support the development of better water quality for Australia’s remote communities.

The collaborative Working together for better drinking water in the bush forum, held in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) from 27–29 June 2023, highlighted the significance of working together to support safe and reliable access to drinking water for remote First Nations communities.

A key aim of the forum was to prioritise First Nations voices to ensure that they are incorporated in decision making going forward.

The forum was delivered in partnership with the Federal Government through the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) and Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), and brought together representatives from South Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia – including First Nations community members, state and territory water utilities, state and territory policy makers, land councils, health
regulators, and service providers, as well as national, state and territory, and local government agencies.

The forum gathered knowledge through workshops encouraging small group interactions of attendees merging different backgrounds, individual informal interviews, and one-on-one sharing. The goal was to capture the challenges currently halting progress and the enabling actions required to achieve resolutions and ultimately to determine key items that should be prioritised to address better drinking water in the bush.

Consensus was achieved on many challenges that need to be addressed, along with a list of 12 key focus items for action, which, if implemented in combination, could assist in delivering better water quality for the bush communities.

The key focus items prioritised:
• Resolution of social challenges such as trust and empowerment
• Engagement in truly integrated partnership
• Governance, including a focus on self-determination for sustainability and building respect
• Education to build skills and capacities of local communities
• Methods for information sharing to overcome perceived silos associated with multiple levels of government and
challenges of remoteness from metropolitan centres

The outcomes of the forum were presented in a report for consideration as areas for immediate and future action. While leadership to address various responses for each key action item is suggested, all of the key focus items are cross-jurisdictional in nature, and a shared, multi-jurisdictional approach to these items will create opportunity for partnership, cost sharing, knowledge sharing and collaborative action.

The 12 key action areas
The report outlines 12 key items for action, which were identified by extracting and matching up themes that arose throughout the forum’s workshops.

Attendees were also asked to indicate whether they felt each of the 12 items were important and/or urgent. Attendees were almost unanimous in determining that each of the 12 key items were important and many of the items were seen as both important and urgent.

The areas for action are:

National principles on safe
drinking water
Setting national principles on safe drinking water for remote communities including to prioritise drinking water and source protection, and incorporating cultural knowledge, Indigenous-led and localised community engagement.

Prioritising health
Addressing national health targets through better understanding of water quantity and quality issues.

Local First Nations water authority with First Nations voices
Creating a localised First Nations water authority which includes First Nations voices and provides expertise on water in remote communities.

Community education
Community education through a coordinated education program to empower the whole community to understand their own water supply delivered through schools and community engagement processes.

Guidance on appropriate technology
An option list of water treatment systems that includes information about the systems’ suitability or reliability as an approach to de-risk the choice of technologies for communities.

Community water rangers
Indigenous-led program for local community water rangers that act as the connection between governing agencies, utilities and the community.

Joined up planning approach
to water
Working together to integrate planning for water supply across all services such as health, housing and energy.

National standards for water security
National standards for water security infrastructure and levels of service including water quality, quantity and supply.

Data dashboard
A national data platform, with understandable, easily accessible, and up-to-date water quality information presented in culturally appropriate formats.

National commitment to action (national action plan)
A national commitment to ongoing action on water issues in remote communities and homelands incorporating all states and territories.

Community workforce
The building of a community workforce to support operation and maintenance of water infrastructure in the community.

Community of practice
A collective of water professionals, both industry and government, with input from water rangers, to share information and knowledge on a regular basis.

Challenges preventing improved water quality
The forum also identified nine areas that presented major challenges to efforts to improve water quality, which were examined to determine solutions and to identify which of the key action areas might assist in resolving the challenges.

The challenge areas and their associated key actions are:

Truth-telling
The notion of ‘truth-telling’ as encompassing challenges around sharing of knowledge and information, specifically localised data, communication, transparency and developing trust and respect was strongly advocated by all attendees, in particular the First Nations community members.

Attendees of the forum said that currently there is no two-way sharing of information with the community.

“Communities can see the water is being sampled but they don’t get the
results – but they could jointly solve the problems.”

One attendee said that all stakeholders need to be on the same page regarding water knowledge and data.

“Communities would like to get information through meetings and a traffic light system online showing water quality and availability information.”

Governance
Areas of challenge for governance identified in the forum included responsibility, accountability, complexity, transparency and lack of consistency across jurisdictions.

Attendees agreed that there needs to be one body that takes responsibility for water quality and is the point of contact for communities.

“Long-term strategic planning is required – including support for programs rather than projects – and providing adequate time to complete, e.g. six to eight years rather than two to three years.”

Education, training and skills development for employment in communities
The challenges of employment, skills, education and training for water management were identified under
headings concerning: the need for regular, ongoing employment of water resource management staff in remote areas, skills, and education and training.

Discussion was also had on the enabling opportunities for broader economic uplift of employing locals in
the community.

The attendees identified four prioritised actions that would assist in resolving the challenges of education, training and employment by employing local community members.

Infrastructure
Challenges around the ongoing reliable provision of water infrastructure in remote communities, which require complex interactions between physical resources, institutions and end-users, often across governance and cultural boundaries.

The complexity of resolving infrastructure challenges was seen in attendees’ responses to key actions for prioritisation. Aspects of infrastructural challenge were identified as maintenance, ownership, replacement of assets, reliance on band-aid solutions, funding capital as well as operational expenditure and identifying appropriate technologies which were fit for-purpose in the local environment.

Planning
Challenges in planning for safe drinking water covered lack of integration, lack of engagement, funding allocations and an emphasis on ‘short-term’ solutions.

Attendees found that, currently, there is a lack of integrated planning – especially long term planning – and that climate tools and indigenous knowledge are major boons to the planning process that are currently not being taken advantage of.

“Planning needs to consider future needs and requirements of communities and should consider impacts of climate change,” one attendee said.

Social
Social challenges and solutions were identified by forum attendees under broad headings of health-determining, inequity, cultural, cost-benefits provided and prioritisation of liveability.

Due to the breadth and complexity of this area, no one key action stood out as being identified to resolve all these issues.

Uniqueness of place and people (different communities)
During the forum a range of challenges and solutions were identified, relating to the uniqueness of places and people across all states and territories of remote Australia.

These were categorised under four areas, the type of community (such as homeland, outstation, or remote community), the size of the population linked to the scale of solution required, the needs of specific communities, and the opportunities and aspirations of different communities.

Water quality
Challenges and solutions to water quality in First Nations communities are clearly of critical importance as
safe and reliable water supplies will be integral to the achievement of many of the health targets in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Issues raised by attendees were categorised under health, taste/aesthetics, and source protection.

Water security
Forum participants identified challenges and solutions around water security that were categorised under four headings: volume of water; demand for water; competing users; and risks associated with climate change.

National standards for infrastructure, levels of service and technologies
The majority of attendees identified national standards for water security in the bush as important. Incorporating both infrastructure needs and basic levels of service with expansion to ensure health-based targets are met, standards could be designed with codes incorporating guidance on installation of appropriate technologies for supply and demand management at each location, along with a joint approach to planning, ensuring that water supply, energy and housing are all considered in any existing or new development.

In this regard, attendees from utilities commented on the value of reinstating a revised community Water Planner. In 2021, the Productivity Commission recommended that subsidies may be required to ensure safe, reliable and affordable access to a ‘basic level of service’ for water supplies in high-cost locations.

While funding was not identified as a key action per se during the forum, a number of attendees commented on the need for any funding allocation to drive desired outcomes such as ensuring sustainability of solutions by factoring in long-term maintenance plans in any operational costings and funding these alongside capital costs associated with any project.

Funds were also requested to achieve specific goals such as for bigger community-led programs and for long-term support for ‘champions’, selected by communities to drive forward a change agenda.

Conclusions
The report recognised that while the sample size of First Nations community members at the forum was small, it was clear that those present wanted to see national leadership on the development of principles to ensure source protection and prioritise safe drinking water for good health, which incorporate cultural knowledge and are driven by engagement and leadership from Indigenous peoples at the local level, ensuring ‘two-way in’ and ‘two-way out’ knowledge transfer.

Several major items were identified as worthy of prioritisation, with many creating significant synergies in combination. These items are:

The creation of national principles, standards, targets and an action plan that all prioritise the health of First Nations people living in communities, outstations and homelands.

Encouraging partnerships between different sectors such as health, water, energy, planning and development to plan collaboratively and to access data and information at the regional level, including relevant guidance on appropriate technology for local solutions in demand and supply. This would support an interest in transforming government organisations to do things differently, in alignment with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap and the Priority Reforms.

Finally, creating a First Nations water authority, building a data dashboard, and organising Communities of Practice, which would allow shared access to data and information and could create shared learnings for management of water supplies in a more climate challenged future. At the same time, creating relevant community education programs, using
culturally relevant knowledge to generate localised workforce development including community water rangers, which would build the community-controlled sector, share decision making and allow governments to partner with First Nations communities to achieve better drinking water in the bush.

To read the full report, visit, goyderinstitute.org/project/working-together-for-better-drinking-water-in-the-bush/

Featured image: Ormiston Pound, Northern Territory. kwest/Shutterstock.com

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