Indigenous Environmental Health: Report of the Fifth National Conference 2004
The New South Wales Colisure Program and Beyond
Dr Paul Byleveld, Manager, Water Unit, New South Wales Health
Kelly Nean, Aboriginal Trainee Environmental Health Officer, New England Area Health Service, New South Wales
Robert Barnett, Aboriginal Trainee Environmental Health Officer, Mid North Coast Area Health Service
Miriam Miller, Bellbrook Community Water Sampler, Community Member
Miriam MillerA safe water supply is essential for public health. The National Health and Medical Research Council, which sets our Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, recommend regular testing of drinking water. This is just one step towards providing communities with safe drinking water. It’s to check that everything that’s been done to deliver water to the communities is working properly.
Most cities and towns in regional Australia test their drinking water supplies for what are called indicator bacteria. These are bacteria that indicate possible contamination of the water supply. If these bacteria are found then quite often there’s some repair carried out on the water supply. It’s investigated, there might be a sanitary survey, looking for the source of the problem. Ideally if there’s a problem there would be a repair or an upgrade of facilities. It could be that the community is told to boil its drinking water if there is no simple fix.
When we collect water samples from towns and cities they are expected to reach a laboratory within 24 hours. This isn’t easy when sampling in rural and remote communities and especially the Indigenous communities in regional Australia. For this reason many remote communities don’t get regular water testing. Kits like Colilert and Colisure get around this problem by taking the testing to the communities.
With the Colisure system you take a clean sample container, which we supply to the communities, and fill it with 100 millilitres of water. You then pour the reagent in, incubate it (put it in a small, heated box for 24 hours) and then read the test result. If the sample is yellow, that indicates a clear result. If the sample turns a pink-red colour that indicates the presence of total coliform bacteria in the water which means there may be contamination. If the sample is then placed under an ultraviolet lamp and fluoresces, then E. coli bacteria are present, which indicates faecal contamination.
We are currently running the program in eight remote Indigenous communities in New South Wales. Some communities get town water where the local council delivers water to the community. Generally they have better resources to fix problems, so with this program we focus on communities with an independent supply. We train community water samplers to use the Colisure system and to read results, and we pay them. Each month our public health units visit the community to collect a water sample as a crosscheck. That goes off for normal lab testing to see how the results match up.
Through the program, which we have run for almost five years, communities have shown an increased understanding of water quality issues. Community members and, in some cases, schools involved in sampling get a better feel for drinking water quality. Community leaders find out if there are problems. Where problems can’t be fixed quickly a warning is issued to the community. So far in New South Wales, from the test results the program has produced, we’ve been able to connect a reticulated, potable supply in some areas. One community received an upgrade of their bore and a chlorination system with a maintenance program.
Kelly NeanSummervale is a little community just outside Walcha in the New England region. The community sampler there is an elderly woman named Mrs Hanes and she really enjoys being actively involved in the water supply for her community. For us the program involves going out to the community and sampling the water. Not only does the community get to know us, but we also get to know them, which I think is a very important step. Everybody who’s involved with it, including the Amaroo Local Aboriginal Land Council, really enjoys the opportunity.
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Robert BarnettThe Bellbrook Community and Miriwinni Gardens are our two communities on the Mid North Coast that have their own water supply. To us water monitoring goes beyond taking water samples. We should be looking at the catchment areas, where the water is coming from. We should also be monitoring the water pipe systems. Broken pipes can affect the water supply to the community.
With this in mind I have a couple of recommendations. The first is to have suitable and culturally appropriate training for residents about their water supply systems and how to manage those systems if something goes wrong: who to contact and what to do so it doesn’t get worse. Too often developers come in and build these systems and train only one person in the community. If that person leaves, the community is left with any problems that arise, and don’t know what to do about them. The second recommendation is that quarterly reports be sent back to the community letting them know what the results are and explaining what they mean.
Paul ByleveldWe are now looking at what the next step is. There are a number of government departments and interested groups in New South Wales providing communities with water supplies, so earlier this year we established an Aboriginal Community Water Supply Working Group to look at the broader issues.
The people on this group are from the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs; the Department of Commerce; the Department of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability (that supplies country towns with water or their infrastructure); the Department of Local Government; and the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources. We have also involved the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, our local public health units and communities in talking about what to do next. And we have gained approval through the Health Department to assign a project officer to start working on solutions.
The first step will be to survey the status of water supply and sewerage systems. In terms of responsibilities, who is doing what for each community? That means talking to the local land councils and to the communities to work out whom, if anyone, is looking after the water supply and who is responsible if there is a problem. We already know some of the answers and there have been reports done before. We are going to bring it all together.
The next step will be to develop monitoring plans for communities. What is the best way to monitor water quality for the communities? Before you start to collect test samples you need to know what your response will be if you find a problem. There’s no point collecting samples and saying ‘We’re sorry there’s a problem’ if there’s no solution. So we need to talk to other agencies and to the communities about how these things can be fixed so they don’t break down. This would be a step towards making recommendations for a sustainable, consistent and coordinated water supply and sewerage service for communities.
We’re not going to stand there and say ‘Well this is the way it’s got to be done’ because for each community there is probably a different way to bring about the best water supply. One thing we have identified is that communities need access to appropriate technical (that might mean plumbers or engineers) and public health support. At the moment that doesn’t work fantastically well right across New South Wales. There are some areas where support is close at hand, in other areas support is a long way away. These are some of the things we’re considering so we can move from simply taking samples, to actually fixing things.
I’d like to acknowledge and thank the community water samplers. People like Miriam Miller (who is here today) who give up their time to collect the samples and talk to the Public Health Unit about problems that arise in the communities; the Aboriginal trainee environmental health officers and environmental health officers from our public health units across the state; Martyn Burchett in our Water Unit in Sydney who coordinates payments to community water samplers and collection of samples; and Daniel Hui in the New South Wales Health labs, and his staff who test the check samples. These people have worked hard to bring about the success of the program. I should also acknowledge Peter Waples who worked with us a couple of years ago to write a paper that really identified some of the confusion with community water supply and really pointed us towards saying 'There’s got to be a better way to do it.' So thank you everyone.
For further information
Dr Paul Byleveld
Water Unit, New South Wales Health
PO Box 798,
Gladesville, New South Wales 1675
Phone: 02 9816 0292
Fax: 02 9816 0377