Aboriginal community

A scan of needs
Nina L. Hall
Publication Date (Web): 12 April 2018
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21139/wej.2018.014

This research sought to identify the priorities of water, sanitation and hygiene within remote communities on mainland Australia. The exploration of WASH access within remote, Indigenous communities was undertaken due to the social and environmental determinants of health and wellbeing inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians which are widely documented, and are acknowledged as being particularly challenging in more remote and isolated communities (McDonald, Bailie et al. 2008, McDonald, Slavin et al. 2011, Foster and Dance 2012, Clifford, Pearson et al. 2015).

Health and wellbeing is influenced by access and quality to safe drinking water, wastewater treatment and waste removal and hygiene practices and settings. The global burden of disease from poor WASH access and services can be measured in part by the impact of diarrhoea, which constituted 2.9 percent of the global burden of disease (considered as disability-adjusted life years) in 2015 (IHME 2015), yet can be significantly prevented through safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation and hygiene and is also treatable (WHO 2017). 

This is recognised in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for water and health. The Australian Government is one of the 196 signatory countries to the UN Agenda, and is committed to progress the SDGs within and beyond its own borders by 2030 (UN 2015). Of particular relevance to water and health are SDG 6, to ‘ensure access to water and sanitation for all’, and SDG 3, to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages’ (UN 2015). Therefore, Australia has a commitment to ensure that the access and quality of these resources is attained for Indigenous Australians living in these remote communities. 

Interviews were conducted with representatives from 17 organisations providing water, sanitation and/or hygiene to three or more communities. The results found that drinking water supplies can be contaminated by microbes or naturally-occurring chemicals. Wastewater treatment can be poorly maintained with irregular monitoring. The hygiene-related health of residents can be negatively impacted by overcrowding in houses, which affects the residents’ ability to maintain healthy hygiene levels of people, clothing, bedding and infrastructure. 

The results can be most effectively considered as a ‘system’, with each aspect representing concentric layers within a system. Healthy behaviours in the home are influenced overwhelmingly by the layer regarding the effects of overcrowding. In turn, the functionality of the heath hardware influences whether the house’s residents can routinely perform these desirable health behaviours. Surrounding these inner layers is the availability of water and wastewater services to the community. These four interlinked levels of WASH services operate in the context of two important foundations: a strong desire to live on their traditional lands in these remote settings, known as country, and the persistent traumatic legacy of colonisation - which continues to offer Western-style solutions and services. 

Effective responses have demonstrated a collaborative and systems-wide response by the various government and other agencies responsible, conducted with an emphasis on cultural appropriateness and long-term partnership with Indigenous Australians.

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