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Water quality and availability concerns in drought for dialysis patients

By Lucy Thackray, Monday July 15, 2019 - 18:55 EST
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Di Dennis is grateful to have dialysis in Walgett, so she does not have to travel far from home. - ABC

The water security crisis in regional Australia could have major implications for life-saving medical procedures.

Dialysis is a vital treatment, requiring approximately four billion litres of top quality water in Australia every year to keep people with acute kidney conditions alive.

The high rate of renal disease in regional Australia, particularly among Indigenous populations, means dialysis is a crucial service for remote and regional towns.

Many of these towns are also facing growing problems with water security.

Every dialysis patient uses 3,000 to 4,000 litres of water a week for treatment to remove waste from their blood.

Walgett resident Di Dennis has been receiving dialysis in her home town in north-western New South Wales for the past decade.

"It's very important, I won't live if I don't have this," Ms Dennis said.

"I don't have a kidney now, the machine keeps me alive.

"If we don't have water we can't use our machines."

Ms Dennis said she was grateful to receive treatment in her home town, because leaving her home town and her family was not an option for her.

"It's very important, my family's here and my grandkids are here, I'd rather be here than anywhere else," she said.

"We know each other and the nurses know us.

"Our nurses are all deadly here, they look out for us, we're one big happy family."

Walgett doctor Rana Sharif said it was crucial that people in regional towns could easily access treatment and remain close to their support networks.

"It's a very fundamental requirement for communities like these because patients cannot travel a 600-kilometre round trip three or four times a week, just to get dialysis done — medically it's not possible," Dr Sharif said.

Water for critical uses, like medical procedures, is given the highest priority when delegating water supplies.

"Most of my patients get dialysis about four hours a session, using 120 litres of water an hour. So, about 300,000 litres is used by a patient over one year," Dr Sharif said.

"When we're doing dialysis here our tank is fully filled and by the end of the day with four patients, the tank is completely empty."

"The water tank is filled from the town supply and goes through a water treatment process at the hospital to remove impurities before dialysis."

In towns like Walgett, accessing water is becoming increasingly difficult.

In summer the town relied on bore and bottled water when both its rivers ran dry.

The town is currently experiencing some relief, with water currently in the Barwon River from an environmental water release that began in May.

But according to forecasts, drought-breaking rain is not on the horizon.

Keepit Dam is empty and Burrendong Dam is currently expected to run out of water within the next 10 months.

Authorities tasked with extending town supplies said recycling water could be the key, with billions of litres of water, which could be treated and reused, currently sent down the drain.

One third of the high quality water used in dialysis could be treated and reused, but currently it was not.

NSW regional water commissioner James McTavish said he believed regional communities were ready to go to new lengths to protect water.

"I think people right across Australia need to look at how we get the best use out of the water that we do have," Mr McTavish said.

"I think there's a growing level of acceptance about water reuse and recycling of water to be used."

Historically there's been some reluctance across Australia to recycle water, especially for consumption.

In 2006, at the height of the Millennium Drought, Toowoomba ratepayers voted against a scheme that would have seen 35 per cent of its sewage water recycled.

"I think that people are concerned in relation to the perceived 'yuck' factor; they don't want to use water they perceive as being unsafe or unpalatable," Mr McTavish said.

"But the reality is the water we do have is a finite resource and we need to make sure we get the best use out of that available water now."

Authorities want Australians to know that recycled water goes through a vigorous treatment process and is held to high quality standards.

"The important message is if water is treated appropriately, if it is recycled in a manner that meets water quality standards, it is safe to use, it is safe to consume, and it is safe for people to reuse for other purposes," Mr McTavish said.

In a statement, the Western New South Wales Local Health District (WNSWLHD) said patients would be cared for, but did not rule out sending some patients away from their home towns for treatment.

"In the event that the quality or quantity of the water supplies is affected in any towns, the WNSWLHD arranges for additional water supplies to be delivered to those towns for dialysis," the statement said.

"In some circumstances, patients might be required to travel to Dubbo for dialysis."

Walgett to Dubbo is a three-hour drive by car.


© ABC 2019

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