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First Peoples

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this resource may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

Discussion paper

In remote Australian Indigenous communities, the ‘familiar story’ of poor water, sanitation and hygiene-related health challenges continues – despite documentation of this situation during the past thirty years.

The representatives interviewed in this scan strongly recommended to stop perpetuating this story:

‘This is not new stuff.  You know, you can look back and do some research for decades and what I'm telling you today is what was being said 20 years ago, so it's not like any of this is new’ (NGO representative #1).

In parallel, they also called for providers to raise their expectations for the standard of these services in all Australian locations – including remote communities: ‘Non-indigenous people who go out to communities quickly lower their expectations to what’s the prevailing norm …  You’re in Australia now, so the benchmark is an urban [clinic] in Darwin or Sydney, not a clinic at the back of Jakarta’ (research representative #2).

This discussion paper presents a scan of the current status of water, sanitation and hygiene services and challenges in remote Australian Indigenous communities.

It was conducted to make explicit the challenges requiring attention and to propose questions to stimulate discussion as to how various stakeholders can respond to these challenges. It was guided by examples of initiatives that have improved WASH services and behaviours.

In 2011 there were about 116,000 people living in remote, discrete Indigenous communities. The 2016 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report identified that health outcomes for remote Indigenous communities were compromised by a range of environmental health factors within homes and communities. Water, sanitation and hygiene challenges such as poor water quality, limited access to safely managed water, hygiene status and marginal living conditions, have been seen as contributing to these continuing health disparities.

The research to inform this scan was conducted by The University of Queensland after being approached by WaterAid Australia about the need for research that identified the actions required to ensure that Australia meets the targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) for ‘access to water and sanitation for all’ by 2030, to which Australia committed in 2015.

To undertake this scan, interviews were conducted with staff from 17 organisations providing water, sanitation and/or hygiene services to three or more communities in mainland Australia, including state and territory government departments (6), and Indigenous (4), research (3), utility (2) and non-government (2) organisations, located across the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales.

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