Delivering water, sanitation and hygiene services to Australia’s remote Indigenous communities

In remote Indigenous Australia, many communities lack access to adequate clean water and sanitation. While this issue is not new, a recent scan of the status undertaken by Dr Nina Lansbury Hall from the University of Queensland, suggests that despite Australia’s commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) significant issues abound.

Dr Hall’s 2017 discussion paper, titled ‘Water, sanitation and hygiene in remote Indigenous Australia: A scan of priorities’ was the focus of her presentation at UNSW’s School of Public Health on Thursday 15 February, where she presented the first of GWI’s 2018 seminar series.

Dr Hall’s paper looks at how Australia can work towards achieving the SDGs for all Australians with a particular focus on SDG 6: clean water and sanitation for all. In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals which were largely focused on those countries to which Australia and others send aid, the SDGs require all countries who become a signatory to commit to the objectives in their own countries.

What I am learning very quickly through my engagement with Indigenous women, in particular, is that we need to be asking ‘how can we help and what can we do?’ rather than coming up with a solution we’ve already written.

Dr Nina Hall, School of Public Health, University of Queensland

Dr Hall says that while the SDGs are an important initiative, they are not ready to apply to every situation and need to be localised.

“While it’s great that so many countries have signed up, we’re now getting to a point where we’re asking, what does this mean on the ground?” asked Hall.

In partnership with WaterAid Australia, Dr Hall undertook a series of interviews about the status of water and sanitation in the unique context of remote Indigenous Australia, in an effort to identify some actions which would help to achieve SDG 6 in Australia. The qualitative study involved talking to those providing services in water, sanitation and/or hygiene in three or more communities, and delving into the deeper issues which are causing poor hygiene and disease.

The results were revealing, finding that Indigenous Australians continue to face issues with contaminated or unpalatable drinking water supplies, damaged infrastructure, hyperendemic trachoma and other infections and significant numbers of girls missing school each month due to menstruation.

Interestingly, a significant number of the issues preventing acceptable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) standards in Indigenous Australia are linked to cultural misunderstandings.

“Even in talking about the issues in remote communities with Indigenous populations, we are still bringing solutions and suggestions that are not necessarily aligning with the culture and history,” said Dr Hall.

“What I am learning very quickly through my engagement with Indigenous women, in particular, is that we need to be asking ‘how can we help and what can we do?’ rather than coming up with a solution we’ve already written.”

Dr Hall suggests that the answers to these issues lie in taking a systems approach to solutions and delving deeper into why these issues are occurring.

Dr Nina Hall with parents, Mrs Gwenda Lansbury and Emeritus Prof Russell Lansbury, Industrial Relations, University of Sydney, at UNSW-GWI seminar

“Healthy behaviours such as personal hygiene are needed, but often social situations such as large households and lack of privacy as well as insufficient infrastructure are preventing these behaviours from happening,” says Dr Hall.

“It’s not about looking at one issue at a time, but finding out what are the base issues are… Once we understand the current system, we can contribute to changing the system so that is a system that works for everyone.”

Despite the seemingly slow progress within these communities, there have been some successes which have had a positive impact. These include the recent improvements that have been made to ‘health hardware’, such as running taps and flushing toilets in repaired and new housing; and long-term, well-funded government initiatives which provide water and wastewater treatment that is ‘fit for purpose, fit for place’.

Dr Hall also praises innovative Government programs which are seeing the bigger picture and enabling previously segregated agencies, such as those looking after housing, health and education, to work together to find solutions.

The release of the paper has already prompted action from Government, researchers, Indigenous communities, and many others, which Dr Hall describes as disproportionate to the piece of work and the size of the study. This suggests that there is not enough work being done in this space, and further collaboration across disciplines and sectors is urgently needed to advance solutions.

670,000 people in Australia identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and of those, around 135,000 live in remote or very remote areas. As a signatory to the SDGs and a country which is well recognised on the global scale as being a leader in water, Australia needs to urgently raise the standard for its remote Indigenous communities.

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