The management of water quality in remote Indigenous communities is so scattered it is impossible to put an accurate figure on the cost of fixing the issue, according to the Water Services Association of Australia.
As access to clean drinking water remains a critical issue for many across the country, the governing bodies responsible, policies and legislation in place vary across all states and territories.
WSAA’s November report, Closing the Water for People and Communities Gap, determined that at least $2.2 billion would be needed to bring water supplies up to an acceptable quality nationwide.
WSAA executive director Adam Lovell said the figure is a conservative estimate due to many unknowns and lack of data available, and would likely cover preliminary measures on the ground without considering background planning and other administrative expenses.
“Overall, our goal was to say, you know, what is the cost to get as many remote First Nations communities up to Australian drinking water standard level in the next decade,” he said.
“We want people to have access to drinking water quality that safe to drink.
“What it boils down to is that there were so many communities across Australia that never had the water quality tested, ever.”
The report found that the Northern Territory has “no single set of water quality standards in legislation or licensing”, and “remote community drinking water supply (is) unregulated, unaccountable”.
In Western Australia the regulation of drinking water is divided into licensed and unlicensed providers with no legislative requirements or minimum standards, enforceable options, or publicly available reporting within the framework.
While minimum drinking water standards do exist in Queensland and South Australia, Queensland paints a troubling picture of the nation-wide problem.
In the sunshine state water safety actions rely on a grant-based model and a fragmented approach where at least 13 state government agencies, as well as the federal government, are in play for remote First Nations communities in need.
WSAA described the current systems as a “sobering glimpse of the complexity of bureaucracy faced by First Nations peoples and any agency wishing to improve the circumstances”.
“These arrangements are legacies of decades of shifting government policies and accountabilities,” the report said.
One key recommendation from the body involves establishing a national water quality monitoring program to first identify the gaps between any remote community and other areas and give increased autonomous management to the state and territories.
For Mr Lovell, it represents a transition away from one-off grant-based funding measures tackling individual projects in favour of a consolidated, standardised approach.
Other report recommendations included backing community-specific essential services, water solutions and innovations.
WSAA also flagged the need for the establishment of a First Nations water advisory group.
Mr Lovell is encouraged by early signs of interest in the report.
WSAA met with the federal government’s National Water Grid Authority and Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water on November 10 following the hand down of their report days earlier.