Human Settlements Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06747 7

Liveability: environmental quality (continued)

Water quality (continued)

Supplying water to remote communities

  • Meeting the needs of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
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    Many of the small communities in Australia are in arid and semi-arid areas with limited local water resources (AWRC 1989). Those who live in small rural communities are far less likely than residents of capital cities to have reliable, reticulated supply that fully meets capacity and water quality standards (Smith 1998). Data compiled in 1989 shows that 153 600 people lived in communities of between 30 and 1000 that did not have reticulated water supply, while another 284 600 people were supplied by a scheme serving less than 1000 people (AWRC 1989). This represented some 0.9% and 1.7% of the total population at that time.

    The diseconomies of scale, particularly for headworks and treatment facilities, put the cost of conventional systems, and the standards and designs employed, beyond the reach of small communities. Providing fully treated and reliable supplies to match those of capital cities was estimated to cost close to $1 billion (in 1989 dollars) in capital works alone (Smith 1998). To reduce this cost, the alternative approach of providing less storage capacity per capita at a reduced reliability of supply, without compromising health standards for drinking water, was put forward by the Australian Water Resources Council (AWRC 1989). But even this low-cost approach would require $0.5 billion (in 1989 dollars) in capital works alone to implement.

    Water supply for isolated dwellings - those below the small settlement threshold-is often via a combination of groundwater and roof runoff (Smith 1998). In the small towns of Ongerup and Newdigate in Western Australia, the most cost-effective way to overcome water supply shortages was found to be the fitting of dual-flush toilets throughout the communities (Crabb 1997). This approach can save between 4% and 12% of total residential water use in any region.

    Meeting the needs of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

    For 61% of the 1291 discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities enumerated in the Housing and Infrastructure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities Report (ABS 2000l), the main source of drinking water was groundwater bores. Town water supply was the main drinking water source for 14% of communities, while rainwater tanks were the main drinking water source for another 9% of communities. Sixteen of the communities, all having a population of less than 50, had no organised drinking water supply. Just over half (55%) of communities with a population of 50 or more reported that their drinking water was treated (ABS 2000l).

    Some 35% of discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with a population of 50 or more experienced water restrictions in the 12 months prior to the survey, effecting 33 850 people. Equipment breakdown was the main contributing factor for water restrictions, reported by nearly 50% of these communities.

    Of the 1291 communities, 71 reported that they had no sewerage system, all having a population of less that 100 people, accounting for 1% of the population and 2% of dwellings in these communities (ABS 2000l). Septic systems with a leach drain were the most common type of sewage disposal system, being the main system for 44% of discrete communities, although, as community population rose, community-maintained waterborne systems became more prevalent. Sixty per cent of communities with a population of 50 or more reported overflows or leakage of their sewerage system in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 10% having chronic sewerage problems. Commonly reported reasons for the overflows or leakage were blocked drains (55%), equipment failure (39%) and insufficient capacity (26%). The Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner (1994) found that ignorance of the linkages between technologies that assist in the delivery of water supply and sewerage services, and the values required to maintain and sustain the performance of these technologies, is a recurring factor in poor service provision. The Commissioner considered that application of appropriate technology that has community ownership is more likely to provide long-term service. This may address the prevalent of equipment failure being reported as a reason for water supply and sewerage system service failure.