Imagine, in Australia, having to buy bottled water just so you can have clean water to drink. Imagine in 2022, in Australia, Aboriginal communities still have to do that, because they don't have access to safe drinking water supplies.
While the 2022 NAIDOC week theme is get up, stand up, and show up, that's an instruction for all of us.
All Australians need to get up, stand up, show up and speak up about this national shame.
In the Northern Territory, drinking water in remote communities regularly breaches guidelines for uranium, and heavy metals. It makes people sick. In Western Australia, the Auditor-General found 24 communities still require the government to truck in bottled water, as local supplies contain harmful contaminants, including uranium. In Queensland, remote, largely Indigenous, townships have faced ongoing water quality issues. Further south, NSW communities also struggled with water quality during the recent drought, and a 2022 study found towns and communities with higher Aboriginal populations and lower income levels were less likely to have access to free sources of filtered water within the community.
In the NT, predominantly white towns such as Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine have a regulated and safe drinking water supply, but in Indigenous communities drinking water supply is unregulated, with many residents needing to resort to buying bottled water. And far from being an unavoidable consequence of life in remote communities, this is the result of ongoing failure by successive NT governments to plug gaps in water regulation. Towns in the NT are serviced by the government-owned Power and Water Corporation, which is subject to legislation, licensed by the Utilities Commission, and has enforceable obligations and service standards. Outside town boundaries, however, responsibility shifts to an unregulated, unlicensed and opaque subsidiary corporation, without enforceable standards. These gaping holes in the regulatory system treat urban, predominantly non-Indigenous populations differently to remote, predominantly Indigenous populations.
This racialised system of water governance is clearest in the central Australian community of Laramba, where uranium levels have been above safe levels for many years. In 2018, residents of Laramba took legal action in the NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal to argue that the NT government, as landlord of public housing, had a legal responsibility to provide safe drinking water to its tenants. The tribunal has so far refused to hold the government accountable for the provision of safe water services. While lawyers for the community have indicated further action may be taken in the Supreme Court, for now this leaves communities with no one legally responsible for fixing the problem.
The new Labor government's commitment to restoring a National Water Commission must end water apartheid in Australia. The commission cannot come too soon for northern Australia, where this disaster is unfolding.
How will this new federal agency help? Almost 20 years ago, Australian states and territories signed up to the National Water Initiative (NWI), which set a new, national standard for water management. Although far from perfect, the NWI committed states to prepare comprehensive water sharing plans, return over-allocated or stressed water systems to sustainable water use, and better manage urban water demands. But compliance with the NWI is patchy right across northern Australia, particularly in the NT and WA.
The original National Water Commission (NWC) was a team of water policy experts, established to audit state and territory responses to the NWI and make sure reforms were made. In 2014, the Abbott government abolished this essential organisation, and its responsibilities were fragmented across other federal agencies with much wider remits, such as the Productivity Commission. No one agency is responsible for acting on this kind of discrimination.
In the absence of a dedicated water agency to hold states and territories to account, progress towards NWI compliance has slowed. This leaves communities vulnerable to inadequate water laws and regulations that fail to meet the national standard.
To its credit, the Productivity Commission has been calling for a renewed National Water Initiative for over a year. Their 2021 report identified major failings of the current NWI to address climate change impacts to water resources, and Indigenous water rights.
The ALP's water policy commits to re-establishing the National Water Commission and renewing the National Water Initiative. These long overdue reforms could finally convince the laggard northern Australian jurisdictions to deliver safe drinking water to all their citizens, and end the tyranny of water apartheid.
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