7th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Health Conference Kalgoorlie, WA

Operation, Maintenance and Monitoring of Water and Sewerage in Discrete Aboriginal Communities in New South Wales

Page last updated: December 2010

Gillian Barlow, Paul Byleveld & Jeff Standen, Department of Aboriginal Affairs, NSW Health

Thank you for having me here today to talk about our program to maintain, operate and monitor water and sewerage in discrete Aboriginal communities.

I would firstly like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this place and to pay my respects to Elders, past, present and future.

In July 2008, the New South Wales Government in partnership with the NSW Aboriginal Land Council commenced a program to monitor and maintain the water and sewerage systems in discrete Aboriginal communities. This sounds pretty simple but to begin to understand the program, it is important to understand a little of the context and something about Aboriginal communities in NSW.

The history of NSW is that many Aboriginal people were made to live together in locations on the edges or some distance from a town. These may or may not have been missions and became generally known as ‘reserves’. They were the responsibility of firstly the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board, then the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board and finally handed to the Aboriginal Lands Trust. It was these organisations’responsibility to oversee everything on the land - including the provision of municipal and essential services. How this was done, and how well, varied.

In 1983, the NSW Government enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. This resulted in these former Aboriginal reserve lands, being transferred to Local Aboriginal Land Councils or LALCs, who had an Aboriginal elected Board of Aboriginal members. 121 Local Aboriginal Land Councils were established.

Whilst the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was intended as an act of reconciliation, it brought with it a large number of responsibilities that the newly created LALCs were not familiar with, had little or no training in and were ill prepared for. For example, each LALC was now responsible for the management and repairs for all the housing on its land. Neither the houses nor the infrastructure was necessarily in good condition when they were handed over.

Most of these communities are located at some distance from, or at best, on the edge of a town and may not be connected to the mainstream infrastructure.This means that although the community has had access to water and sewerage, the infrastructure is often located within the boundaries of the land and hence owned by the LALC.

Under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, the land was transferred to the LALC as a large single parcel of land, even though it might contain many dwellings. The Local Government now treated the land as private land and charged rates on it as a single parcel. Rates are used as a contribution towards municipal and essential services, such as the removal of household garbage. It is also used for the provision of water and sewerage.

In the cases where water and sewerage is available, the Council was responsible for these up to the boundary of the land but it became the responsibility of the Land Council from there to each dwelling. This might be reasonably close (such as Bowraville on the north coast) or it might be at some distance away – many kilometres even.

Where the reserve was some distance from a town, the land might have its own sewerage treatment or water treatment works. The Land Council was then totally responsible for the provision of water and sewerage for its tenants. These types of systems for water include:

  • groundwater (bores)
  • rainwater
  • river water – generally with a chlorinating system.
For the sewerage removal, the on-site systems include:
  • septic tanks
  • aerated waste water systems
  • oxidation/evaporation systems
  • land application areas
  • sewerage pump out systems.
All of these systems have their own issues and require a certain technical knowledge to maintain and monitor.

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Where local government provided water and sewerage to the boundary only of the land, because the land was a single parcel, rates were calculated on the basis of a single dwelling on the property, even where there was substantially more dwellings than this. Obviously a lot of houses use a lot more of everything than just one house and therefore the rates were charged at the exorbitant “excess use” rate. This has meant LALCs have paid thousands of dollars for water or sewerage use, when calculation of the rates and charges on a “per dwelling” basis would have resulted in no or little “excess use”.

Whilst funding has been spent since 1983 on capital works – upgrading pumps or installing new filtration systems, by both the Commonwealth and the state, there has been little or no assistance to land councils for the maintenance or regular repairing of them.

Regular monitoring of each community’s water has been undertaken through comparatively ad hoc arrangements, often requiring community members themselves to be involved in this. Whilst the employment in doing this has generally been welcomed by the individual or individuals involved, it means that should they go on holiday or have other business, the monitoring may be left until another time, leaving a community in a potentially serious position. In regards to sewerage disposal, when an emergency occurred, a solution of some sort would be worked out but it remained the responsibility of the Land Council to look after the system. If funding couldn’t be sourced to replace a poor system, the Land Council had to manage this as best as it could.

This is how things stood in 2004 when a working group was established by NSW Health to develop a coordinated strategy to investigate the water and sewerage infrastructure needs in discrete Aboriginal communities.

Although this all seems comparatively straight forward now, when the working group first started to meet, it wasn’t so. No-one was clear as to what the situation was or who was responsible for what. What was clear though was that it didn’t work and communities were having to pick up the pieces when something went wrong and as systems got older, more and more things were going wrong.

The working group was made up of a range of state and Australian government agencies as well as key peak stakeholder bodies, many of whom had refused to talk to each other about the situation before, so angry were they all about it.

In May 2007, the working group completed a paper which outlined the issues involved and suggested a way forward. It included a desktop study of discrete Aboriginal communities.

The study defined a discrete Aboriginal community as one which satisfied all of the following criteria:
  • It must be in NSW.
  • It must be bounded by a physical or cadastral boundary.
  • It must be owned and managed by an Aboriginal organisation on a community basis.
  • It must be lived on permanently.
  • It must have a minimum of 3 houses.
67 communities were included.

This study outlined how the water and sewerage was provided to each of these communities. It did little else because not much more than this was known about the actual systems - let alone the condition of them in each of these locations.

The Issues Paper explained how the problems had come about and made a series of recommendations. In particular, it noted that the situation was not acceptable and needed to be fixed. It mentioned that there was no single agency which was responsible for supporting the discrete communities to maintain their water and sewerage infrastructure and that LALCs were unable to sustain these systems over the long term as they often lacked the resources and/or skills. Besides, no other communities in NSW were expected to do this.

As a result of the Issues Paper, a full survey of each of the discrete Aboriginal communities was done to get more information about their systems and work out what was needed to fix them. From this, a business case was established and funding sought.

In July 2008, therefore, the NSW State Government and NSW Aboriginal Land Council agreed to work in partnership to deliver a maintenance and monitoring program of the water and sewerage systems in over 60 discrete Aboriginal communities. It was agreed that the program would be the responsibility of the Department of Water and Energy, who had the expertise to do this, and would be overseen by a steering committee made up of State agencies including NSW Health, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, NSW Treasury, NSW Aboriginal Land Council and the Local Government and Shires Associations.

It is the program’s intent to have the relevant local government take over the responsibility of the operation and maintenance of the systems – not take ownership of the infrastructure but to enter into a service agreement with the community to do this work on a regular (and defined) basis – so that it is no longer the Land Council’s responsibility to do this and in a manner similar to that every other NSW person would expect.

No-one in Sydney for example would be expected to know anything about how the water and sewerage gets to their house or where it goes when it leaves – let alone how to fix anything if something went wrong – why then should it be expected that people on a community should be able to do this.

Each of the discrete Aboriginal communities is visited by a team lead by the Department of Water and Energy. All parties are present at this first meeting - community representatives, members of NSWALC, the local government or local utility provider, the health workers and any other interested parties. The program is explained. The various elements of the infrastructure are examined and faults, malfunctions etc are noted. The community has a chance to outline any issues they have with water and sewerage.

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Notes from the meeting are sent back to the community and the local government representatives and once they are agreed on, negotiations start with the local government to see how they can take over the maintenance, monitoring and operation of the systems.

If there is any emergency works required, the Department of Water and Energy is responsible for seeing these are done as quickly as possible. At this stage, there is no funding for capital works as such, but it is part of the intention of the program that with regular maintenance and monitoring, each system should be able to work to capacity and should last for a considerable length of time.

It is an advantage to have a range of technical experts on site at the same time as they tend to challenge each other into finding the best solution to a problem.

For example at one community, there had been considerable difficulties with a chlorination pump which was required to treat the creek water which was being used. The water was being drawn from the creek, chlorinated and then pumped around to each house. People at the bottom of the hill, close to the creek, complained that their water always smelled of chlorine and was unsuitable for drinking or using as a result. Often they would turn off the chlorinating pump because of this. This meant the water was not being chlorinated at all and people could become sick. Everyone was boiling their water as a result – a serious situation.

An initial solution included installing a second water line in which the freshly chlorinated water would be taken directly to the reservoir at the top of the hill. It would only be this water that would then be distributed to the houses – the problems with having very strong smelling and tasting chlorinated water would hence be solved as the water would have had a chance to sit in the reservoir before distribution.

This solves the problem certainly but it was at considerable expense. What is also important here is that it was known that in a few years time, the water could be sourced via an alternative mainstream method and then they would no longer have to use their small creek’s water at all – which was becoming increasingly difficult to do particularly with the effects of the drought.

After some deliberation, it was felt that a different solution might lie in pumping water from the creek and chlorinating it in the middle of the night – say from 1:00am to 4:00am when people were unlikely to be using it. The freshly chlorinated water would be able to sit in the reservoir for a length of time before being used by anyone – by which time it should be suitable for drinking without the strong chlorine smell that can occur when it has only just been chlorinated.

This solution was worth a try at least – if it didn’t work then the second line could be put in – if it did, substantial amounts of time and money could be saved and the community would be able to save on operating costs by using off peak electricity to pump.

To the end of April, 2009, 28 communities have been seen by the Department of Water and Energy.

Five have started negotiations with the local government for an interim arrangement of operation of their systems and one has a finalised arrangement in place. This community which was the very first one visited because it was known to have a large number of issues associated with its systems, has had no problems with its water and sewerage since.

An agreement between the state government and NSWALC to work together over a length of time, at a minimum of 25 years, has been signed.

Agreement between the relevant agencies will be developed so that they too know how to work together over this same length of time. The “working together” a foundation of the Two Ways Together Aboriginal Affairs plan where agencies and Aboriginal people are asked to work together to formulate the best possible results for Aboriginal communities, has been difficult at times and the program is an excellent example of how it can occur and have a great outcome.

Individual agreements between each community, the local utility provider and the Department of Water and Energy are currently being developed – as well a risk management plan will be drawn up for each community. This plan will outline what each community should do if something does go wrong - who they should call, where they should go.

There are of course still challenges to be met by the program. One major one is employment. It is hoped that a number of full time positions will be able to be secured. Before, people from a community were often employed a few hours a week or month to monitor and test the water or to ensure the infrastructure was working properly. By having regular maintenance and monitoring and overseen by the local council, a full time position that includes this work as well as a range of other activities is anticipated. The Steering Committee is continuing to work on this aspect.

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By the end of 2009 all discrete Aboriginal Communities will have had the program explained in detail to them and have had the opportunity to be involved. Hopefully by then many of them will also have at least started negotiations with the relevant local council to undertake the work.

Whilst it is a single program run for Aboriginal communities across the State, each community is looked at individually and a unique solution is being worked at so its particular needs can be met. No solution is generic – each agreement is for that community and its water and sewerage alone.

Most importantly however, is that once they have an agreement in place with their local government, the community will be able to be confident that their drinking water is safe to drink and that their waste is being removed and disposed of properly.

For more information

Gillian Barlow
Program Manager
Department of Aboriginal Affairs, NSW
Level 13, Tower B, 280 Elizabeth Street, Surrey Hills, NSW, 2010
Ph: 02 9219 0753 Email: Gillian.Barlow@daa.nsw.gov.au