The burden of inequity in terms of access to safe drinking water in Australia disproportionately affects remote areas, and these areas often have a larger population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Having access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Water remains a critical issue for many communities across Australia, particularly those who were at risk of losing their water supplies at the height of the recent drought. As devastating as losing water supplies might sound, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities live without safe drinking water every day. In prosperous countries such as Australia, it is often assumed that safe drinking water is accessible to everyone – but it is not.
In many remote or very remote communities bore water is often the primary source of drinking and household water, but it is often contaminated and fails to meet the standards of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.¹ Water chemistry analysis in some communities indicates that the nitrate and uranium content far exceed recommended levels for drinking.² The burden of inequity in terms of access to safe drinking water in Australia disproportionately affects remote areas, and these areas often have a larger population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The fact that Indigenous people live without safe drinking water is unacceptable and it should not be the case that people in remote communities are out of sight, therefore, out of mind.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities represent an important part of Australia’s heritage and local, state, territory and federal governments must take urgent action to address the water crisis facing many remote communities. Not only is access to safe drinking water a human rights issue, it is also an important public health issue. The lack of water and affordable healthy food in rural and remote communities is strongly linked to the epidemic levels of diabetes and renal disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sugary drinks are more readily available than low sugar drinks, and in some communities, they are more accessible than running water. In a recent study published by the Australian National University, concerns about the safety and quality of drinking water in rural and remote areas have led residents to avoid tap water and instead buy bottled water, cordial or other sugary drinks.³
It is unfathomable that in Australia, there are some communities that do not have access to safe drinking water – this is essential for good health and wellbeing. While most of us enjoy free, safe drinking water from the tap, those who can least afford it often have to pay just to ensure they are not drinking water sourced from rivers, streams, cisterns, poorly constructed wells, or water from an unsafe catchment. It is an issue that demands immediate attention and action by all levels of government – without it, the health gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their non-Indigenous peers will remain wide and intractable.
The AMA sees an interim policy opportunity for the Commonwealth Government through Outback Stores to ensure that bottled water is affordable and available, especially where the supply of drinking water to homes and communities may be inadequate. Over the long term, governments must invest in the appropriate infrastructure, such as proper treatment facilities, water storage facilities and distribution systems to meet the water needs of communities. Access to safe drinking water is an important policy issue for the AMA and is something that we will continue to advocate for – all Australians have the right to permanent and free access to safe drinking water regardless of where they live.
1. NHMRC, NRMMC (2011) Australian Drinking Water Guidelines Paper 6 National Water Quality Management Strategy. National Health and Medical Research Council, National Resource Management Ministerial Council, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
2. Rajapakse, J. et al (2019). Unsafe drinking water quality in remote Western Australian Aboriginal communities. Geographical Research, 57(2), 178–188. doi:10.1111/1745-5871.12308.
3. Thurber K. et al (2020). Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among Indigenous Australian children aged 0–3 years and association with sociodemographic, life circumstances and health factors. Public Health Nutrition, 23(2), 295-308. doi:10.1017/S1368980019001812
About the author
AMA President, Dr Omar Khorshid is an orthopaedic surgeon and co-chair of the AMA’s Taskforce on Indigenous Health.