Water: our most basic human right

Water is a human right, but many Australians living in  remote communities do not have the same access to drinking water that is enjoyed by those who live in urban areas.

World Water Day is an important reminder for our government policy-makers and all Australians to take more action and fight for this fundamental human right.

Many people living in remote communities, including many Indigenous Australians, do not have the luxury of turning on their tap to clean and safe drinking water. 

Water in these communities may be unsafe due to natural and man-made contamination sources. Common contaminants include heavy metals like cadmium and uranium, microbes from contact with sewerage and man-made pollutants from mining operations, agriculture and even defence sites.

World Water Day helps countries promote their efforts to reach the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal on water (SDG 6).  Australia, along with 197 other countries, signed up to meet the 17 goals- but there is still a long way to go.

If we want to achieve these goals and make the world a better, healthier and more sustainable place, then we need to act now.

SDG 6 calls for clean water, sanitation and hygiene for all people. To achieve this, all Australians need access to clean, safe and uncontaminated drinking water. Unfortunately, this is not the reality of every Australian. Although it may be 2019, we are struggling to meet the SDGs and our talk about ‘Closing the Gap’ is only rhetoric if we can’t translate this into action. We have work to do on home soil before this goal is achieved, ahead of the 2030 target date.

Finding the best fit

But it’s not an impossible task. We have the technology, know-how and training to make this possible but we’re missing some key fundamentals that ensure our water is ‘fit for place, fit for purpose and fit for people.’

'Fit for place' means providing clean water all year round, in a way that can be supported by limited staff. It involves other considerations, such as weather damage and water sources (lakes, seas, land) which may affect accessibility.

‘Fit for purpose’ requires looking at the intended use and treatment of the resource. And 'fit for people' looks at what is acceptable for humans to safely drink and enjoy. Making water safe to drink doesn't necessarily mean people will drink it. Potable water is technically safe to drink, but in some communities, people complain that it smells funny, is ‘hard’ or has a strange colour. This can have flow-on effects. If you don't want to drink that water, what other hydration sources can you turn to? Bottled water can be expensive, create waste and be a short-term solution that's not available to everyone, creating a further divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.

People often turn to soft drink instead. The Northern Territory has the highest intake of soft drink consumption, per capita. And the Territory has high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes – the unfortunate side-effects of high sugar consumption.

Paving the way forward

I work with governments, water industry partners and researchers on a variety of research projects around providing safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) options. These organisations share goodwill and intentions to learn more about the needs of remote communities – in combination with how best to work respectfully with Indigenous Australians.

My research collaborations include a partnership between local communities, local government and state government to re-think the way that drinking water is treated for long-term potability in the outer Torres Strait Islands. I’m working with water industry members to identify partnerships between urban water utilities and local communities and councils in remote and Indigenous communities. Another project looks at girls’ and women’s hygiene in remote communities in Cape York and the challenges of managing with dignity every month.

And I’m working with an Aboriginal Medical Service and an Indigenous housing organisation in the Central Desert to expose how the spread of hygiene-related infectious diseases is influenced by government housing that is insufficiently repaired or insufficient in volume – causing crowded conditions.

On World Water Day, we need to look both at home and abroad to recognise where action is needed to improve the health of all our citizens. Together, we need to work towards a safer and cleaner water future that all Australians can enjoy.