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What's it like working with remote communities?

With a career spanning many sectors (and kilometres), Amy Dysart has worked in roles from aquaculture through to international development. Here, Dysart reflects on what she’s learned from her work with remote communities.

Amy Dysart.

It took me a little while to get into the water industry, after a two-year gap year I studied biotechnology at Murdoch. I soon realised I was not suited for a laboratory and started working in aquaculture. I worked in Broome with pearls, then in Darwin for a private venture in prawns.

By then it was also clear that my husbandry skills weren’t cut out for the outdoors either, and I started working with Power and Water in 2005 as the CRC Project Officer for the remote water supplies program.

It was a great time to enter the water sector with the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines introducing the risk-based approach and getting actively involved in the Australian Water Association Northern Territory branch committee.

A couple of years later I moved into a water quality specialist role, overseeing 72 remote communities and introducing the water quality monitoring program. We worked collaboratively with the Department of Health to prioritise water supplies that had contaminants – arsenic, uranium, fluoride and nitrate – all above the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines recommendation levels to implement improvement programs.

We simply couldn’t solve all the problems at once. We needed to work out which issue to tackle first. It was a huge learning experience for me. It was so diverse, I had to be involved in everything; developing the strategy of what needed to happen, implementation of programs, as well as advancing the capital upgrades to address identified issues.

I continued to study part time and leverage the water network as support to the wide-ranging work activities, an opportunity that comes from working in small jurisdictions.

After I had my second child, I started thinking about what else I could do. Although we have a service gap in Australia for some of our remote communities, I wanted to experience firsthand water and sanitation in the international context.

When an opening for WaterAid Country Director in the Solomon Islands came up, it didn’t take much convincing and we were off. We packed up the family, rented out the house and moved to the Solomon Islands, with a nine-month-old baby and a three year old.

It was an amazing and challenging experience, a real privilege to be immersed in a completely different way of operating for two and a half years. It was a new country program so we had to set up everything from scratch, which I couldn’t have done without the support of my husband.

WaterAid has a very strong development philosophy to guide the establishment of water, sanitation and hygiene programs that are appropriate for the context. This is definitely something that can’t be underestimated. Context is everything – one size doesn’t fit all.

The Solomon Islands has very a small population with more than 5000 villages spread over 1000 islands.

I thought I appreciated remote challenges, but the Solomon Islands made remote NT look like downtown Sydney.

I now have a new scale of relativity for everything, work and life, and a much greater appreciation of the opportunity we have in Australia. In the day-to-day, it is easy to lose touch with the world view.

This is where Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the holistic long-term global vision, by recognising the interdependency of everything we do.

You can’t just focus on SDG 6 in isolation; this will support other goals and vice versa. It requires a collaborative mindset, which we’ve got to make the time to do and continue to do among the competing priorities.

We already come together across the sector through organisations like the Australian Water Association and Water Research Australia, so we can leverage off these forums to consider SDGs.

I think because we understand the water cycle and the foundational role water has to life, we in the water sector are in a strong position to collaborate and impact the SDGs.

Amy Dysart is currently acting as Business Service Senior Manager at Power and Water Corporation in the NT.

First published in Current magazine April 2019.