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Close the clean drinking water gap

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BY AMA PRESIDENT DR MICHAEL GANNON

Safe drinking water is an indispensable human right.  The leading national and international health bodies, such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations, all agree that safe drinking water is essential to sustain life, and a prequisite for the realisation of other human rights. The UN General Assembly explicitly recognises the human right to clean drinking water.

Having access to sufficient, safe, accessible and affordable drinking water is an important public health issue. 

In developed nations such as Australia, it is often assumed that safe drinking water is accessible to all.  However, this is not the case, particularly in many remote or very remote communities where artesian (bore) water is often the primary source of drinking and household water.  

According to the Bureau of Statistics (2007), for discrete Indigenous communities the majority accessed bore water (58 per cent), while other sources of water included: town supply (19 per cent), river or reservoir (5 per cent), rain water tank (3 per cent), well or spring water (3 per cent), and other sources of water (2 per cent).

While the supply of potable water (defined as waterthat is safe to drink or to use for food preparation, without risk of health problems) impacts on all people living in remote areas of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately affected.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living remotely find it challenging to obtain water that is of sufficient quantity (and quality) to meet their needs.

In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were more than 400 discrete Aboriginal communities across Australia, with the largest number in Western Australia. Data collected on over 270 remote WA communities indicated that the quality of drinking water did not meet the Australian standards, as outlined in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG), approximately 30 per cent of the time.

While the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has responsibility for the ADWG, this is not a mandatory standard, with State and Territory Governments and local councils responsible for the implementation and monitoring of water quality and safety. Yet during the two year period 2012-2014, 80 per cent of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia failed to meet quality standard testing at least once.

There are obvious health consequences from drinking poor quality water. Some Aboriginal communities are known to have unsafe levels of chemical contaminants such as nitrates and uranium in the water.  Nitrates and uranium occur naturally, and are common in the Goldfields and Pilbara regions.

‘Blue Baby Syndrome’ – where an infant’s skin shows a bluish colour and they can have trouble breathing – can be caused by excessive nitrates in the diet, which reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.  It can occur where prepared baby formula is made with well water.  Water tested in over 270 remote communities in WA showed nitrate levels 10 times the recommended levels.

It is concerning that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living remotely often have no choice but to pay for safe drinking water.  While the majority 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, rivers, cisterns, poorly constructed wells, or water from an unsafe catchment.

The AMA is a member of the Close the Gap steering committee and the Public Health team has raised potable water as a Close the Gap target.

The solution may not just be in more bottled water. In communities without adequate recycling and waste disposal services, thousands of extra plastic water bottles create additional environmental problems.

Governments must invest in infrastructure, such as proper treatment facilities, water storage facilities and distribution systems to meet the changing demands of communities. 

All Australians must have permanent and free access to safe water. It is a basic human right and it is difficult to understand how this hasn’t already been implemented and addressed. 

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