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How a national drinking water quality database can help close the gap in access to safe water

About 8% of Australia's population is not included in reporting on Sustainable Development Goal Target 6.1 for access to safe drinking water. One Australian National University researcher says the gap demonstrates Australia’s need for a national drinking water quality database.

Dr Paul Wyrwoll, lead researcher and author of “Measuring the gaps in drinking water quality and policy across regional and remote Australia” in Nature Partner Journal Clean Water, said this research shows Australia's national reporting of drinking water quality is not fit for purpose.

“We started with a fairly simple question: How many people in Australia lack access to safe, good quality water?” he said.

“I didn't think it was going to take long to find a complete answer to this question, but, as it turned out, in Australia we don't have a national drinking water-quality reporting system that includes smaller water providers, and reports all the water industry’s monitoring against health-based and aesthetic guideline values.

"Australia's national water-quality statistics do not include service providers with less than 10,000 connections. This means approximately two million people, or about 8% of Australia's population, are not included in reporting on the 'clean water for all' goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

However, the 2022 SDG progress report says that 100% of Australians have universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, with national statistics misrepresenting the challenges facing communities and water service providers in regional and remote Australia.

Given that regional and remote drinking water quality remains a persistent challenge across the country, Wyrwoll said the creation of a national drinking water database is urgently required to help direct investment towards effective policy and bolster community engagement.

“Our research has shown that the data is available, it’s just not being collated and organised in a way that will assist policy makers, communities, and the water industry,” he said.

“We can create a national database; it is totally achievable. Combined with the body of knowledge emerging on the conditions needed for consistent delivery of safe water and sanitation, this can help deliver water for all."

Minding the gap

The research reviewed public reporting by 177 water utilities to measure gaps in drinking water quality in regional and remote Australia and assessed water quality performance against the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, Wyrwoll said.

“It's fairly easy to find data in the context of larger, state-owned water utilities, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and South Australia. It becomes trickier in Queensland and NSW, where there are many local council water service providers,” he said.

“Furthermore, NSW water service providers are not required to report publicly and to provide an annual public performance report. Although 18 of more than 80 councils did so voluntarily, that means approximately 1.2 million people in regional NSW lack detailed information on what’s in their water.”

For data that was available across Australia, the researchers found at least 25,245 people across 99 locations — with populations of fewer than 1000 people — had accessed water services that did not comply with the health-based guideline values at least once in 2018-19.

They also identified 408 regional and remote locations — with a combined population of 627,736 people — that failed to measure up to the ADWG's aesthetic determinants of good water quality across safety, taste and physical characteristics.

“While 40% of all locations reporting health-based non-compliance were remote Indigenous communities, it’s important to note that poor water quality affects many different communities and locations right across regional Australia,” Wyrwoll said.

How a national database will help

Wyrwoll said the lack of complete and accurate reporting, as well as the further work required to ensure universal access to safe water in Australia, points to a very clear need to establish a national database for drinking water quality.

“This research very quickly became about developing a proof-of-concept for a national database, which would allow governments to more effectively target their investments, or at least clearly indicate the areas where more information is needed about what consumers need,” he said.

“And it’s achievable to create a national drinking water quality database. It would be helpful if the upcoming reform of the National Water Initiative included standardised reporting across all of the jurisdictions. We can then start to quickly fill in the data gaps as we go along.”

Aside from informing investment decisions and policy makers, Wyrwoll said a national database that is publicly accessible would also provide an excellent tool for communities that are having issues with water quality.

“There's an opportunity to make sure that more people in regional communities better understand what's in their drinking water,” he said.

“If we want to have a conversation about how to improve water services, it needs to be an informed conversation where the customer has accurate and timely information so that we can engage in a dialogue about expectations. It allows them to work with service providers and hold them accountable.”

Wyrwoll said that many of the places with reports of non-compliance are smaller communities, which indicates that finding effective solutions to acceptable drinking water quality will require place-based solutions, and open-access data can support more customer-led approaches.

“Having customer or community-led approaches to defining the problems and then deciding on the solutions is critical to better outcomes that are sustainable,” he said.

“And data regarding drinking water quality needs to be easily accessible. Importantly, community consultation is about more than just data. Culturally appropriate and community-led assessment processes need to be developed, tested, and adapted to specific contexts.”

Increasing transparency, improving trust

Wyrwoll said that with the federal government planning to invest more money towards improving water quality in regional and remote Australia, it’s important that solutions look beyond hard infrastructure.

“We need more than hard infrastructure to solve this challenge. We need investment in soft infrastructure, too, in terms of bringing people together, improving relationships, and sharing knowledge about what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

“By improving relationships through genuine co-design and co-decision-making, there's a better chance that we are going to achieve sustainable improvements. There is a better likelihood that improvements will meet community needs if they have genuine leadership rather than being consulted on plans developed primarily by service providers or government agencies.”

While a national drinking water database will provide more transparency and could help to build trust, Wyrwoll said it could also support important epidemiological research. 

“One really important benefit of a national drinking water quality database that included historical data is it would enable epidemiological research,” he said.

“We’d be able to foster a better understanding of the linkages between water quality and health outcomes for specific contaminants. And this could be really important in terms of informing updates to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.”

Wyrwoll said making drinking water quality data publicly available could also help to drive more of a national conversation around the issue, and help drive change.

“It should be a priority that everybody is able to access safe, good-quality water, especially in one of the richest countries in the world,” he said.

“A national database could help generate a better understanding in the cities that not all Australians have the same high levels of water services. Governments need to be held accountable for targets, investments and intentions actually leading to better outcomes.”

For further information on this research, please see the open-access, peer reviewed journal article: Wyrwoll, P. R., Manero, A., Taylor, K. S., Rose, E., & Quentin Grafton, R. (2022). Measuring the gaps in drinking water quality and policy across regional and remote Australia. npj Clean Water, 5(1), 1-14.