Environment & energy, Food & water | Australia

26 July 2022

Policymakers need a national drinking water quality database to inform investments in clean water for all Australians, Paul Wyrwoll, Ana Manero, Evie Rose, and Quentin Grafton write.

Australia is one of the world’s richest and most urbanised countries. Most Australians live in capital cities where secure access to high-quality essential services is normal. In these cities, water from the household tap is, typically, clear and both tastes and smells as it should.

Indeed, the vast majority of Australian city dwellers might assume that the United Nations 2022 Sustainable Development Report is correct in stating that 100 per cent of Australia’s population has ‘universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water’.

They would be wrong.

Australia’s national reporting on access to safe drinking water excludes water providers with less than 10,000 connections to the treated public water supply. This means that around two million people, who make up approximately eight per cent of Australia’s population, are not included in reporting on Sustainable Development Goal 6: ‘Clean water for all’.

Leave Sydney, Melbourne, or any city, and the drinking water story can be very different. In many regional and remote areas, residents know, or suspect, that their tap water is not what it should be.

Multiple problems can exist. Harmful microbes and chemicals may contaminate water, which can cause short- or long-term health impacts. ‘Hard’ water with high mineral content can cause build-up that shortens the lifespan of pipes and appliances.

Bad smell, taste, or colour – known as ‘aesthetic characteristics’ – may lead households to rely on bottled or trucked water or turn to sugary drinks. Emergency water restrictions, long-term boil water alerts, or lack of access to treated water can last months, and even longer during droughts.

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In recent years, multiple media stories have documented unacceptable drinking water quality across the country, in Laramba, Tenterfield, Pandanus Park, Wilcannia, Menindee, Walgett, Dulacca, Yass, Uralla, Stanthorpe, Cooper Pedy, Yuendumu, Murrurundi, Bourke, Palm Island, Borroloola, and Beswick.

Even more of these stories go unreported. Video testimonies and the report from the 2019 Citizen’s Inquiry in the Health of the Baaka (Lower Darling) River and Menindee Lakes show the consequences, and the deep concerns of families and their communities.

While drinking water quality challenges exist across Australia, lack of access to safe drinking water is prevalent in remote Indigenous communities, and it is a key barrier to improving health and overall wellbeing.

Recognising these problems, the Productivity Commission and Infrastructure Australia have highlighted that regional and remote drinking water supplies need urgent attention. State and territory governments have made some funding commitments and some have established new programs.

Importantly, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap will include community infrastructure targets. The new federal government’s water policy platform includes new investments in town water supplies under the National Water Grid Fund, and a National Water Commission that could oversee progress on water quality and security.

These commitments are a good step forward, but regional and remote communities need much more.

Surprisingly for such a wealthy country, Australia has no national database to track water quality performance against the health- and aesthetic-based guidelines values of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (ADWG). Without one, decision-makers at the national level are ‘flying blind’ and cannot measure progress nor allocate funding to where its most needed.

To begin filling this critical knowledge gap, our research responded to this question:

How many people, and where, in Australia lack access to safe and good quality drinking water?

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We collated the publicly available drinking water quality data from across Australia in 2018-19 and constructed the first national dataset that records exceedances against the ADWG. Our analysis found that at least 25,245 people in towns of less than 1,000 people across 99 locations accessed drinking water services that did not comply with health-based guidelines at least once over the 12-month reporting period.

When we broadened the scope to include larger towns and aesthetic guideline values for good quality, at least 627,736 people in 408 locations accessed drinking water that did not comply and 40 per cent of all locations where drinking water exceeded health-based guidelines were remote Indigenous communities.

A single non-compliance with health-based guideline values does not necessarily mean water is unsafe in the short term and some people may tolerate aesthetic characteristics of water that do not meet guideline values. Nevertheless, ongoing lack of access to safe, good quality water is affecting the health, wellbeing, and finances of many Australians.

This situation is an indictment of governments that have prioritised investments in irrigation water infrastructure.

Parents living in Canberra do not have to worry about their children’s health being at risk from poor quality drinking water. Why shouldn’t parents and children living in Wilcannia have the same right?

Our research shows that it is possible to build a long-term understanding of where Australia’s drinking water quality problems are and who is most at risk.

We also identify critical monitoring and reporting gaps. For example, many Sydneysiders may be surprised to learn that their state does not require local water utilities to publicly report on their drinking water quality. This means that around 1.2 million people in regional New South Wales cannot access information on what is in their tap water.

Across remote Australia, a lack of monitoring and reporting is common for small communities, and even in places serviced by government agencies.

Australia can, and must, do better. Along with committing to address the problems and funding improved water infrastructure, the federal government urgently needs to build a national drinking water quality database.

Such a database is not mission impossible. It will require resourcing, careful design, regulatory backing, and strong political commitment, but the public benefits would be substantial.

It will allow governments at all levels to implement targeted policy responses, inform long-term epidemiological research, increase transparency and accountability, and more.

A national drinking water quality database can be done. Now, the federal government needs to take this next step towards ensuring safe and acceptable water for all Australians, wherever they may live.

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