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

Demystifying Infrastructure: A National Indigenous Infrastructure Guide

Page last updated: December 2010

Ruth Elvin & Eleanor Hogan, Centre for Appropriate Technology


Before moving into the substance of this paper, a couple of acknowledgements and an apology need to be made. First, thank you to the traditional owners, the Wongatha people, for their warm welcome to country on the first day of the conference. Second, the work of co-author and project coordinator Eleanor Hogan was been fundamental to the progress of both the project and this paper, and it is a shame she was not able to participate in the conference. Third, an apology for the misleading title; this paper should have been titled ‘Trying to Demystify Infrastructure’, for it describes our attempts to do so in the development of a National Indigenous Infrastructure Guide. It is a Guide that we hope will help the victim of the following scenario:

What happens when the cistern doesn’t flush and there isn’t any water at the household tap? The solar bore is pumping, but water is only just trickling into an empty storage tank. A household water supply splits, sending a fountain of water into the air. You have to isolate the main because you can’t find the isolation valve at the branch. The valve box is hard to find. You think it’s near the generator shed under a mass of grass and vegetation, though there aren’t any markers to identify the water main’s alignment. Eventually you find the remains of the valve box, broken by the bobcat during a rubbish clean-up. The valve shaft is filled with soil and the area is contaminated by waste engine oil dumped on the ground from servicing the generator. And now the phone connection has dropped out again….

We hope that by the end of 2009, the harried victim will be reaching for the new National Indigenous Infrastructure Guide to help sort out some of these problems.

Understanding the development and maintenance of small community infrastructure is critical to Indigenous community capacity building and the environmental health of communities in rural and remote Australia. Community capacity is undermined when infrastructure is inadequate, inappropriate or malfunctioning, with consequent impact on health and education. However, working with sustainable infrastructure in Indigenous communities throughout Australia presents particular challenges, particularly for those new to working with service provision to communities often distinguished by their remoteness, climate and culture. Information is scattered, inaccessible or varied across state borders, and seldom cross-referenced across different areas, such as water and wastewater. Where technical information is available, it is not necessarily related to principles of community involvement or sustainability. It has become increasingly evident that a single, coordinated guide to infrastructure development in Indigenous communities would be extremely useful. This paper describes issues in the development of the National Indigenous Infrastructure Guide (NIIG) in 2008-09 by the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT ) in collaboration with the Australian Department of Families and Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA).

NIIG was conceived in 2008 as a sibling to the National Indigenous Housing Guide (FaHCSIA 2007) to fill a perceived gap in accessible information about infrastructure delivery issues to Indigenous communities, particularly remote communities. It covers all of Australia and addresses the issues found in different climate zones and jurisdictions. In providing a systematic approach, it is akin to a ‘one stop shop’ similar to other comprehensive projects such as the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet spoken about earlier in this conference.

NIIG aims to help communities to ask the right questions and to get appropriate solutions to infrastructure issues, and to provide a roadmap to local practitioners and service providers to help them make informed decisions in a community context. It is most applicable to communities where one or more services are not part of a main service grid. Communities of over 200 people are considered major communities in this context, with less than 200 people being ‘minor communities’ or outstations, depending on their service structure.


NIIG covers the following key infrastructure elements:
  • water
  • stormwater
  • wastewater
  • waste
  • energy (including renewable energy )
  • transport (roads, aerodromes, waterways)
  • telecommunications.
In each section, users are led through a process of appraising, choosing, designing, installing, and maintaining an infrastructure option. They are able to access any part of the process needed; that is, if they already have septic system, users only need refer to the management and maintenance section.

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In developing NIIG, the steering group suggested that the technical scope be limited to infrastructure fundamental to the immediate health and functionality of a settlement. Thus, NIIG follows the National Indigenous Housing Guide’s emphasis on water supply, energy, sanitation and waste management as being critical areas of infrastructure that contribute directly to environmental health. Transport and communications infrastructure (telecommunications, roads, airstrips, barge landings) were included because they are essential in ensuring that remote and very remote communities are not isolated. Similarly, stormwater drainage was also deemed a necessary inclusion in recognition of the impact of flood damage in flood-prone communities.

Housing, however, is excluded from the scope of the Guide because the National Indigenous Housing Guide already provides a comprehensive resource in this area. The overlap between the two guides, particularly in areas such as wastewater, is recognised by cross-referencing in NIIG and, hopefully, in future editions of the housing guide.

The technical infrastructure areas listed above comprise the second part, and bulk, of NIIG. The first part provides the foundation, the underpinning principles, and we have provided chapters on community involvement, and management and maintenance, which are then echoed throughout NIIG.

Although NIIG’s authors and collaborators take it as a given that without community involvement or planning a maintenance regime, infrastructure cannot contribute effectively to sustainable livelihoods, NIIG is deliberately explicit for people less familiar with those assumptions. NIIG thus documents:
  • best practice approaches to infrastructure design, operation and maintenance; and
  • recommended approaches to effective community engagement, planning and capacity building.
It also brings together existing research, codes and standards, resources and other material on community infrastructure.


Defining the audience was one of the more difficult issues faced by NIIG’s developers. It is not an exhaustive manual for technical specialists: there are enough of those. Nor is it a basic ‘how to’ manual for the person on the street: this is not possible as not everyone has a grader or an engineering degree.

NIIG is primarily for the people working with infrastructure in Indigenous communities, including:
  • Community Managers, Executive Officers, Essential Services Officers, Environmental Health Workers, Works Supervisors
  • local and state government officers
  • those planning and developing infrastructure projects.

NIIG’s Development

The process of scoping and defining NIIG began in October 2007. Draft chapters were prepared between March and September 2008, and were reviewed at the Centre for Appropriate Technology and by government and non-government service providers and Indigenous people working in the various fields covered by NIIG.

Regional workshops were held in Alice Springs, Adelaide, Broome, Cairns, and Darwin with potential users of the Guide. Following the incorporation of feedback by March 2009, another workshop was held with the key reference group to approve the new shape of NIIG. The reference group represented Commonwealth and NT governments as well as programs such as Fixing Houses for Better Health.

NIIG began the long editorial process with FaHCSIA’s Indigenous Communications Unit in April 2009, with final production and distribution expected towards the end of the year.

NIIG’s Parameters

As already noted, NIIG complements the National Indigenous Housing Guide (2007). It also complements The Environmental Health Handbook (2001).

Both resources use an environmental health framework based on the assessment of health risks in a particular environment and the development of strategies that seek to eliminate or minimise this risk. The Environmental Health Handbook is useful for considering issues of health, housing and community infrastructure, and includes information about community development and land management. However, it limits the discussion of infrastructure to water supply, sanitation, energy and waste management.

The 3rd edition of the National Indigenous Housing Guide also provides a basic overview of health-related infrastructure. Its approach relies on the premise that a basic level of infrastructure is required to support health hardware and thereby reduce the risk of community health problems.

The critical performance factor here is ‘reliability’. The Housing Guide utilises a lifecycle reliability framework to provide a checklist of best practice measures for each phase of the infrastructure lifecycle (design and specification, quality control, maintenance).

However, while both the Health Handbook and the Housing Guide offer good information on community infrastructure, it is not their primary focus. NIIG addresses this aspect of creating sustainable community livelihoods by providing an ‘enabling platform’ for understanding service needs outside the house.

In short, the Housing Guide stops at the front gate, while the Infrastructure Guide goes beyond the front gate, and even includes the roads out of town.

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Issues in Developing NIIG

Guiding Principles

Not surprisingly, there was considerable debate over the shape of the guiding principles that underpin NIIG. Much of the approach to infrastructure in Indigenous communities refers to the history of service deficit created by remoteness, poor standards and lack of resources. HealthHabitat has documented this history in relation to housing through its Fixing Houses for Better Health programs. Individual and public health have been central themes of calls for improved service standards to Indigenous communities.

NIIG seeks to broaden this platform by enhancing the understanding of the role that access to essential services plays in sustaining remote Indigenous communities and assumes positive contributions by the communities to the process. It puts forward a framework of integrated principles that best serve the development, management and maintenance of infrastructure in Indigenous communities. They are: access and equity, environmental health, health and safety, appropriateness, affordability, and sustainable livelihoods.

This approach is also in keeping with the principles outlined in the National Partnership Agreements on Remote Indigenous Housing and Remote Service Delivery, which Ken Wyatt referred to in his keynote address at this conference and which have been explicitly incorporated in NIIG.

A Detailed or Holistic Approach?

We have attempted to take NIIG beyond ‘just fixing things’, but we admittedly struggled with the level of detail required in each area. How deep should we bury the pipes, how wide do we grade the road, how high to put the tank? The potential for useful detail was endless.

After much discussion, NIIG has ended up with a mix of some perceived necessary detail and information about where to get more detail, based on the authors’ assessment of immediate need, and general likely usefulness. It is in this area that we expect and hope to get most feedback.

More generally, NIIG incorporates an analysis of the vulnerability context in which infrastructure is placed and should enable the identification of holistic strategies to improve the viability of infrastructure. These include:
  • improved community engagement, planning and decision- making processes
  • maintenance strategies including a systematic and holistic management framework that incorporates the complete asset lifecycle.

Refining the Issues

NIIG Regional Workshops

Workshops were held in Broome, Cairns, Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin, with participation from NSW agencies. Participants represented the range of potential service providers and users from Indigenous communities, government, power and water utilities, Telstra, Outstation Resource Agencies and other non-government organisations. Up to ten people attended each workshop, excluding CAT staff.

The general response was very positive about the value of NIIG and the unique contribution it would make as a resource for those working on community infrastructure projects, particularly in remote areas. Many thought NIIG would be more useful and have a broader application than the NIHG. There was strong support for a regularly updated NIIG and interactive Web portal.

NIIG was seen as potentially having multiple audiences, ranging from those with high levels of knowledge and experience to less-specialised workers and relative newcomers to the area. Consequently, they felt the NIIG had to be user-friendly and functional enough to cater to these audiences and to direct people promptly to what they want and need to know. Community involvement needed to be flagged as a key message.

However, the feedback also indicated that NIIG needed to be more streamlined, and replication of material from elsewhere needed to be eliminated, while it also needed to be linked more closely to the Housing Guide. We have tried again to balance these often conflicting requests, and no doubt the next round of feedback will let us know if we have succeeded.

As already noted, there was some debate about the need for guiding principles to inform the NIIG’s integrated framework, and what they should be. There was robust support in several workshops for environmental health as an ‘enabling platform’ for the NIIG, with the argument that most priorities for infrastructure in remote communities were reducible to environmental health matters. This would also give the NIIG greater contiguity with the NIHG. However, it was more generally agreed that an environmental health platform might not encompass all the principles and issues the integrated framework seeks to address, which is why environmental health is a major, but not the only platform.

With regard to format, workshop participants agreed that a visually oriented design might be more appropriate for the NIIG’s users. This interface should be a feature of both the print publication and Web portal. How much it ends up looking like the Housing Guide is in the hands of the FaHCSIA Indigenous communications design team and their budget.

Finally, in the feedback, there was NIIG’s scope: the NIIG has been conceived of as a resource for those working with Indigenous communities where one or more services are not provided by a network or broader, reticulated grid. However, it was been suggested that a continuum be considered, as there are some grey areas where communities are ‘half-in, half-out’ of available networks. This is not entirely resolved, and we haven’t focused on rural or urban communities that may find this useful. Again, feedback towards the second edition may help us understand the need, if any, in those areas for this guide.

The main message though from the workshops was: “Just get the Guide out there and see how it floats!” And so we will, with publication expected by late 2009.

It has been a huge project, done in less than two years by a small group of specialists committed to using their technical expertise to improve the chances of healthy and sustainable Indigenous communities wherever they are. It has been a privilege to be working with them, and we all look forward to your feedback about the usefulness of our NIIG.

Thank you.


FaHCSIA 2007. National Indigenous Housing Guide. 3rd edition. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Harris, G., 2001. Environmental Health Handbook: A Practical Manual for Remote Communities, Menzies School of Health Research, Darwin.

For more information

Ruth Elvin
Manager, Technical Resource Group Centre for Appropriate Technology PO Box 8044, Alice Springs, NT 0871
Ph: 08 8953 4339 Email: ruth.elvin@icat.org.au