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Yuendumu in Central Australia at 'severe risk' of running out of water

By Katrina Beavan, Tuesday August 13, 2019 - 08:57 EST
ABC image
The remote community of Yuendumu in Central Australia. - ABC

The largest remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia is rapidly running out of drinking water. And as the quality of what remains deteriorates, locals say authorities are dragging their feet in finding a solution.

Traditional Owner Robin Japanangka Granites is extremely passionate about the community of Yuendumu where he grew up, almost 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, but he's concerned about its future and what will happen when the water runs out.

"It is a matter of urgency," Mr Granites said.

"We need the Government to come out and talk to us and tell us the truth, when are we going to get them to come and drill [for water]."

Jimmy Langdon, co-chairperson at Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation (WYDAC) in Yuendumu, said he was concerned about the quality of the water, which he said appeared to be increasingly saline as aquifer levels dropped.

"The water that's in Yuendumu is not good sometimes … when we open the tap in the morning it's white," Mr Langdon said.

Yuendumu's water problems began well before the rain stopped falling as a result of the current drought.

The community draws its water from an underground aquifer that typically receives very little replenishment and it's just one of many remote Aboriginal communities in Central Australia that's been struggling with finite groundwater supplies for many years.

NT Minister for Essential Services Dale Wakefield said she was aware of water quality issues in Yuendumu, but has declared the community's water to be safe and passing all health standards.

"We have had some comments about the taste changing as we do drill deeper into the current resource, however we feel that will be fixed when we move the production bores further and deeper into the resource," Ms Wakefield said.

Construction halt in remote community

Locals say the community of Yuendumu, with a population of roughly 900 people, desperately needs new infrastructure.

WYDAC had contracted a local company to build new housing for staff to be based in the community, including a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) representative.

But the Northern Territory Government did not give approval for the building because it's put a halt on new construction in the community to prevent added pressure on the dwindling potable water supply.

"It is very important to have the NDIS, because they work with the community's disabled [people], and they work with old people on pensions," Mr Langdon said.

One local construction company told the ABC, with no new houses being built, it's had to lay off six local workers, which was a blow for a community where jobs are hard to come by.

During this time, Ms Wakefield said the Government had been trying to locate a long-term sustainable water supply in Yuendumu.

"We've also had to do due diligence and see if there were any other more affordable, more accessible water resources," Ms Wakefield said.

Community labelled as a 'severe risk'

Power and Water, the NT Government-owned utility, said it did not expect it would need to truck water to Yuendumu and said the quality of water currently supplied complies with national guidelines.

However, a letter from the Ms Wakefield to the local Independent MLA Scott McConnell sent in May this year, said Yuendumu was listed as a community at "severe risk" in relation to its water supply.

"Numerous bores have been drilled over many years in the Yuendumu region to improve the capacity of the water supply, but as an extremely arid region, the complexity and costs of finding new water sources has made that task challenging," the letter stated.

Power and Water said in 2002 when the most recent bore field was made, it was estimated to last until 2012 at the longest.

Since 2014 it has spent millions on water saving campaigns and drilling for potential new water sources, but no new suitable drinking supplies have been found.

It also said another $1 million had been set aside for a drilling program to happen sometime this financial year.

It said some high salinity bores had been constructed and were ready to be used if no better supply options were sourced.

While a desalination plant is another back-up option if no water is found, the Minister's letter estimates that could cost up to 10 times more than that of the current sources.

Frustrated residents said the Government was not treating the issue as urgent, and communication with locals about potential plans had been poor.

"They didn't even bother come and ask us where we can look for water," Walpiri elder Harry Jakamarra Nelson said.

However, Power and Water said local knowledge often identified 'near-surface groundwater resources', which were of poor quality and not sustainable.

Widespread problems

The NT Government said it was also working with Geoscience Australia to investigate regional groundwater systems surrounding several Central Australian communities that were experiencing water stress including Imanpa and Engawala and the Barkly community of Wutunungurra.

In Imanpa, a community with about 200 residents to the south of Yuendumu, Power and Water is scoping for future water sources.

The community has seen decades of decline in groundwater levels due to lack of rainfall and over-extraction for use by the community and nearby cattle stations.

Independent ground water engineer Graham Ride, who's worked in the region for decades, said the communities under water stress all had long-running difficulties finding new water sources that weren't a limited supply.

"It's just unfortunate that so many of the main communities were constructed where there were depots or missionaries in the early days, [but] where there was very little water," Mr Ride said.

When the water runs out

Though all solutions seem costly, Independent member for Stuart, Scott McConnell, said the Northern Territory Government had an obligation to spend what was needed to fix the problem so Aboriginal people could remain living on their traditional lands.

"We don't get a lot of special federal grants and significant return on GST … because it's hard to deliver services in Palmerston and Darwin, we get that because it's hard to deliver services in remote communities," Mr McConnell said.

"People are describing it as a crisis, people are telling me that their families are moving to town, people are telling me that the quality of water is causing people to go."

Kirsty Howey, a Darwin-based researcher for the Housing for Health Incubator at the University of Sydney, said the legislation aimed at governing drinking water did not apply to remote communities in the NT and she said change was needed.

She said part of the problem was that Power and Water provided services to remote parts of the NT through its subsidiary Indigenous Essential Services, a private company.

"It is not a licensed entity and it is not required to comply with any particular legislation governing drinking water in the NT," she said.

"We would argue that the NT should consider adopting a safe drinking water act … that requires all drink water suppliers, including Indigenous Essential Services, to be licensed and directly accountable to residents in those places."

Ms Wakefield, however, would not be drawn on whether the NT needed to adopt a safe drinking water act, insisting the Government was working on a a "long-term sustainable plan" for future supplies in Yuendumu.

"We know there is a water resource available to us in Yuendumu that can provide sustainable water into the future — however, we need to access it," Ms Wakefield said.


© ABC 2019

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