Improve Access to Safe Drinking Water to Improve Indigenous Health
BY AMA PRESIDENT DR TONY BARTONE
Having access to safe drinking water is a human right. Water is a critical issue for many communities across Australia, particularly those experiencing the effects of the current drought. It is devastating that some communities are currently at risk of losing their water supplies, but it is even more disturbing that many Indigenous communities live without safe drinking water on a daily basis.
In prosperous countries such as Australia, it is often assumed that safe drinking water is accessible to everyone – but it is not. In many remote or very remote communities bore water is often the primary source of drinking and household water – it is often contaminated and fails to meet the standards of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. In a 2015 report from the Western Australia (WA) Office of the Auditor General, between 2012 to 2014, 80 per cent of the State’s remote Aboriginal communities failed to meet quality standard testing. Furthermore, water contamination is causing alarming rates of disease in Indigenous communities, where toxicity from nitrates is much higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians.
The burden of inequity in terms of access to safe drinking water in Australia disproportionately affects remote areas, and these areas often have a larger population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The fact that Indigenous people live without safe drinking water is unacceptable and it should not be the case that people in remote communities are out of sight, therefore, out of mind. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities represent an important part of Australia’s heritage and local, state, territory and federal governments must take urgent action to address the water crisis facing many remote communities.
Not only is access to safe drinking water a human rights issue, it is also an important public health issue. The lack of water and affordable healthy food in rural and remote communities is strongly linked to the epidemic levels of diabetes and renal disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Sugary drinks are more readily available than low sugar drinks, and in some communities, they are more accessible than running water. In a study published by the Australian National University earlier this year, concerns about the safety and quality of drinking water in rural and remote areas have led residents to avoid tap water and instead buy bottled water, cordial or other sugary drinks.
It is unfathomable that in Australia, communities do not have access to safe drinking water – this is essential for good health and wellbeing. 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. It is an issue that demands immediate attention and action by all levels of government – without it, the health gap Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their non-Indigenous peers will remain wide and intractable.
Access to safe drinking water is an important policy issue for the AMA and is something that we will continue to advocate for. Governments must invest in infrastructure, such as proper treatment facilities, water storage facilities and distribution systems to meet the demands of communities.
All Australians have to right to have permanent and free access to safe drinking water regardless of where they live.
Published: 03 Dec 2019