The community water planner field guide: an information pack for water management in indigenous communities.

Robyn Grey-Gardner and Kat Taylor, Centre for Appropriate Technology


One of the greatest contributions that can be made to improving water supplies in Indigenous communities in Australia is through planning and management based on risk management principles. This paper will describe a project called ‘Guidelines and Best Practice Documentation – Water Supplies in Remote Indigenous Communities’, which was the basis for creating the Community Water Planner Field Guide. The Field Guide is an information pack to help service providers and Indigenous community residents in planning the effective management and operation of small water supply systems. The information pack consists of a series of posters with guidance for appropriate participatory methods and approaches.

The Community Water Planner Field Guide was commissioned by the National Water Commission (NWC). As the name suggests, the Field Guide supplements the standard water planning tool, The Community Water Planner (NHMRC, 2005). The Field Guide will assist Indigenous communities and service providers, including governments and utilities, with local water management. The project was led by Water Quality Research Australia Ltd (WQRA), and the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT ) developed and trialled the Field Guide in four remote communities. A steering committee and a working group with health professionals and technical specialists contributed to the content, design and strategy of the Field Guide.

Trialling the Field Guide.

We asked four diverse remote communities in different states to work with us on the project so that the pack could be tested in different legislative, cultural and climatic contexts. The case study communities were permanently occupied, had a population of between 20 and 200 people, and agreed to take part in the project. The communities in the trial were: Buru (China Camp) in Queensland, Yuelamu in the Northern Territory, Mandangala (Glenn Hill) in Western Australia and Malabugilmah in New South Wales.

To assess the Field Guide. materials, we surveyed the residents. The short face-to-face survey asked residents about their community, their knowledge of water supply management, and how the materials in the Field Guide. could be improved. The survey responses influenced the information in the pack materials and shaped the guidance materials. The project began in April 2008 and the final trial site visits were in June 2009.

The Community Water Planner Field Guide

Indigenous communities are located in varying climatic and environmental conditions and each community may have a unique language and cultural perspective. In order to make the Field Guide applicable to any Indigenous community in Australia, we created a generic pack which incorporates the following considerations:
  • Applicability to remote Indigenous communities
    • Recognition that English may be a second or third language
    • Small water supply system design, including technology that is used in remote areas
  • Adaptable
    • Can be used with a range of water supply types, community contexts and legislative structures within Australia.
  • The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2004)
    • Emphasis on hazard identification and risk management
The Field Guide focuses on preventing microbial contamination of drinking water. The secondary focus is managing other health threats, for example chemical contamination by fuel or lead. Information on water use efficiency (demand management) was also included, but the topic is not the primary focus of the Guide.

The Field Guide is packaged in a mailing tube for easy transport and storage. The tube contains posters, activity sheets and an instruction manual for the facilitator. The choice of using posters was a result of discussion with community residents. Several format options, including online tools, were discussed with the residents of Yuelamu and Malabugilmah during the initial phase of the trial. The residents preferred posters to convey the water management information. In addition, posters are an eye-catching way of publically displaying information and they are accessible to a broad audience.

The posters and other materials are brought together using the facilitation process described in the instruction manual. environmental health workers or essential service officers could be facilitators; their skills and technical knowledge would be a valuable resource to the participants creating a water management plan. If, however, the facilitator is not a specialist, they can still use the Field Guide. by reading the background material and following the process.

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The Water Supply Management Facilitation Process

The facilitation process consists of four steps followed by an annual review. The steps are: community water mapping, water supply risk management, asset management and roles and responsibilities. See Figure1 below for an overview of the process.

Step 1: Community Water Supply Mapping

The first step of the process is mapping the community water supply using the stickers and large blank mapping sheet provided. The colourful stickers prompt participants to include water supply infrastructure such as bores, fire hydrants and tanks. The stickers also introduce water management concepts that might be new to the participants, such as critical control points. Mapping is a fun and inclusive way to start talking about the water supply. Mapping helps to identify any problems with the supply or gaps in knowledge (e.g., does anyone know where the isolation valves are located?).

Figure 1: Flowchart showing Water Management Facilitation Process
Figure 1: Water Management Facilitation Process

Step 2: Water Supply Risk Management

During the second step, the facilitator and participants go through the water supply posters and identify the ones relevant to their supply. The posters illustrate installation requirements and ongoing maintenance tasks for each section of the supply; source, storage, distribution, use and wastewater disposal. By reading and discussing the posters the participants build knowledge of the potential hazards and risks to the water supply. The posters can be displayed together as a frieze or separately near the relevant water supply infrastructure. Displaying the posters in a public place serves to remind and reinforce the importance of the management activities.

Step 3: Asset Management

The asset management step consists of maintenance posters and a long- term planning worksheet. The colourful posters show basic maintenance tasks for mechanical assets such as electric pumps, diesel generators and chlorination units. Ideally, the posters would be displayed near the asset, in a workshed or similar place.

By going through the asset management worksheet, participants create a plan for infrastructure replacement. The worksheet gives an indication of how long each part might last and allows long- term financial planning.

Step 4: Roles and Responsibilities

The materials used in the fourth step are a series of posters showing the roles and responsibilities of different agencies and government departments. The posters ‘map’ the relationships between remote communities, legislation and relevant organisations along the ‘paths’ of both water quality management and infrastructure. The facilitator works through the poster content using a set of scenarios. There is a focus on who to contact and under what circumstances. If a pipe bursts, who needs to know? Names and contact details (e.g. local water utility contact person) can be recorded directly onto the posters.

Experience from trial sites

Following is an overview of what we learnt from the resident surveys and experience of trialling the Field Guide.

Firstly, engaging people on the topic of water was not difficult. Generally, residents from the case study communities recognized the importance of good quality drinking water and the role that they can play in managing their own water supply.

Secondly, the Field Guide has two audiences. The information about who to contact in an emergency, basic water supply characteristics, and water risk management principles is for everyone. The other audience is made up of water managers and other people who carry out operational activities. They require more specialised information, such as how to handle chemicals safely.

Thirdly, in order for information to be useful it must be tailored to specific community needs and circumstances. One of the challenges we faced in creating the Field Guide. was making a generic resource that was flexible enough to be used in a variety of different contexts. We addressed this by including mechanisms for localising the Field Guide. throughout the facilitation process. As a result, the information in the Field Guide. is accessible. It is also comprehensive and technical. We meticulously cross-referenced and checked it against the Community Water Planner (NHMRC 2005) and the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (NHMRC 2004) for consistency.

By using the information in the Field Guide. as part of the water management planning process, water supply breakdowns can be reduced, water quality improved and this will contribute to better health in remote Indigenous communities.

Next Steps

The Field Guide. will be released in late 2009. The Field Guide. will be available free of charge and copies will be available at Health Departments in most States and Territories. Additional copies will also be available at the Centre for Appropriate Technology. All Field Guide. files will also be available for download from the web.


National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), 2005. The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines: Community Water Planner - A tool for small communities to develop drinking water management plans, Canberra.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2004, Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, Canberra.

For more information

Kat Taylor
Centre for Appropriate Technology
PO Box 8044 Alice Springs NT 0871
Ph: 08 8951 4323 Email: