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Co-design approach sees results in addressing contaminated water in Aboriginal communities

With contaminated drinking water still impacting nearly a quarter of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, communities from around the state have come together with water planners, tech companies, infrastructure engineers and academics to develop smart solutions.

Professor Rhonda Marriott of Murdoch’s Ngangk Yira Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and Social Equity, Yamatji elder Mara West, Dr Kuruvilla Mathew and Dr Martin Anda of the Harry Butler Institute are leading the collaboration with an organising panel of Indigenous people from around Western Australia.

Here, Yamatji elder Mara West discusses the initiative and why a co-design approach is central to meeting the challenge.

The International Small Water and Wastewater Systems Conference, held at Murdoch University in December 2019, had an Indigenous stream where several recommendations were put forward, including the need for SMART Communities be created for all, a holistic approach to infrastructure projects, and an Indigenous round table on water to be formed.

Environmental health and water management is very important for healthy thriving communities. The research presented at the conference made a significant contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 to ensure availability and management of clean water and sanitation for all. Papers in small water and wastewater systems were presented at the conference that considered the improvements necessary in Aboriginal environmental health.

Key messages from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples centred around communities not being included in conversations regarding environmental health and water issues. There remain huge challenges for maintaining optimal health in communities faced with poor water quality and sanitation issues. Communities need to be better engaged in the operations and maintenance of the systems as well as water supply systems and water testing methods.

To engage communities in this process a co-design workshop was proposed where representatives from communities could come together and have the opportunity to talk about the issues they faced in their communities as well as be introduced to new technologies that could be available to them.

The co-design process

Co-design encourages designers, engineers and regulatory authorities to promote user ownership and empower resource-poor individuals and groups. The 4-day workshop was held in June 2021, challenged the imbalance of power between those who make important decisions around water supply and sanitation and the livelihoods of those in Indigenous communities that are directly and indirectly affected. So often, decisions are made with little to no involvement of the people who will be impacted by them.

Co-design empowers people recognising they are experts of their own experience. Experience based co-design brings together health workers and other community-based workers in an authentic and equal partnership to co-design programs and facilities to deliver improved services. In this workshop participants were:

  • introduced to new technologies;
  • assisted to construct their community profile and assess their needs regarding appropriate water and sanitation designs;
  • assisted to scope a trial for regional service providers; and
  • form a training plan for the whole region.

The program took the following approach:

  • Welcome face-to-face and online delegates and familiarised them with how the workshop intended to proceed to achieve the best results.
  • Discuss the program in general, including technical discussion sessions and the technical tours.
  • Hands-on learning in water treatment and irrigation systems, and smart digital control systems, were arranged including technologies on desalination, water quality testing, wastewater treatment, grey water reuse and solid waste management.
  • Co-design workshop activities to develop “smart community’ pilot projects.

The majority of attendees were Indigenous people, technical experts and service providers by invitation.

Addressing the problem

The quality of water in many communities is contaminated by traces of arsenic, nitrates, E coli and even uranium, as revealed in a damning Auditor-General’s report.

“However, water still tested positive for contaminants in 37 communities in the 2 year period to 2019-20. A further 51 communities were not tested for water quality until late 2019, 4 years after they were included in the REMS program,” the report states.

“This exposed these communities to the risk of illness from chemical and biological contamination.”

At the co-design workshop, Co-Chief Investigator for the Western Desert Kidney Health Project and member of the Order of Australia and recipient of the Fiona Stanley Medal, Annette Stokes said: “Every Friday we’re having funerals. Our people are dying”.

“When you add poor diet and limited access to health services to unsafe water, it’s a perfect storm of risks affecting our people. We urgently need to find a way to monitor and filter our water,” Stokes said.

“We just want our water fixed.”

Some participants were frustrated that things hadn’t moved along as quick as they should as communities were still experiencing water and sanitation problems. They were concerned that they still haven’t had access to data.

One participant from the Fitzroy Valley said their community wanted access to the chemical test results as well, not just bacteriological, transparency of data collection and reporting.

Helping lead the collaboration, Dr Mathew and Dr Anda are environmental engineers and experts in urban water efficiency, liquid and solid waste recycling and have worked with Aboriginal communities on their homelands for many years.

Dr Bep Uink, Research Fellow at Kulbardi Aboriginal Centre said: “We’re undertaking hands on learning — putting the technology and infrastructure in the hands of community leaders — that will lead to informed decision-making and ultimately empowerment for these communities.”

Meeting the challenge

The Roundtable on Water is keen to implement the following priorities put forward at the Co-design Workshop:

Prioritised Problem/Solution 1: Aboriginal Environmental Health Worker training programs in the communities be strengthened and at least one paid position be available in each of the 143 homelands communities across Western Australia.

Prioritised Problem/Solution 2: Availability of better water quality data to communities. It was requested that Murdoch University set up a culturally appropriate demonstration project on Homelands Digital Water Services.

Prioritised Problem/Solution 3: Setting up the Hub: it was requested that Murdoch University set up a homelands and community services (research and development) hub. This can be a knowledge-sharing hub and connected communities hub for delivery of trial projects with the support of service providers.

Those Indigenous participants from communities requested that communities outside the urban sprawl be referred to as Homelands and not remote, as they say, “Perth is remote but we are not”.