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Dirty water despair

Sarah Smit -

There are 44 communities with WA's Department of Communities that don't have access to microbial water testing, with some community members drinking from water supplies that haven't been tested in more than a decade.

According to environmental health workers, the true figure of those without access to microbial water testing could be much higher.

In WA, there are 138 remote Aboriginal communities in the Remote Essential and Municipal Services program.

Forty-four of those communities, housing at least 500 people, don't have access to microbial water testing, leaving them vulnerable to bugs such as E. coli and Naegleria.

Department of Communities assistant director-general, Paul Isaachsen, said in a statement to NIT that there is currently no mechanism for those communities to request government microbial water testing if they have concerns about their water.

But Chicky Clements, environmental health worker for Nirrumbuk Aboriginal Corporation, said the true number of people drinking suspect water could be much higher than 500.

Since 2020, overcrowding and COVID-19 concerns have led some Aboriginal people in the Kimberley to move from larger communities back to very small outstations that were built before the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was disbanded in 2005.

Outstations do not receive any water, sewerage, or power services from the Kimberley Remote Service Provider.

Drinking and bathing water in outstations is drawn from rivers or from bores sunk when the communities were established under ATSIC. Mr Clements said as far as he is aware, the bores and attached tanks have not been tested or cleaned since they were installed with ATSIC funding.

"There's no testing until someone gets really sick; then they'll have to try and trace back to where they were, what they did, or what they drank or ate," Clements said.

"And if it does come back pinpointed to (the drinking water) that's when they'll do a test."

Karajarri woman Fay Dean lives on Country at an outstation near Bidyadanga and drinks from a bore that was sunk when the station was established in the early 2000s.

She said in her 15 years on the station, her water supply hasn't been tested once.

"I'm just risking it. There have been some bugs in there, and we've been told to flush the tank, but how would we get in there to push the sand out, if there's sand and beetles and frogs in there?"

Ms Dean's brother lives at Frazier Downs Station, where the tap water has been contaminated for at least 30 years. At Frazier Downs they bring in bottled water to avoid getting sick, but Ms Dean says she can't afford that.

"I'd like to know, what am I drinking? Is this going to have after-effects as I get older?"

Mr Clements and other Aboriginal environmental health workers who did not want to be named said if they had access to field testing kits, they could get instant results on drinking water.

"If we had (water testing) kits, we could have done probably regular water testing on a lot of these little outstations, and that would at least indicate what's in the water," Mr Clements said. "But that sort of thing has the potential to cost big bucks."

Aboriginal environmental health workers have told NIT there is no political will to fund the testing.

"(I think the Government's attitude is it's) probably better not to know what's there and just wait until something happens (to those drinking the water)," Mr Clements said.

When Mr Clements asked a representative of the State Government whether Nirrumbuk could access field testing kits, he was told that testing water on outstations would create more issues than it was worth for the Government.

"Pretty much what I was told was, 'well if you do that you can open up a can of worms. So the safest thing, the easiest thing is, if there's an issue with the water, just boil it,'" Mr Clements said.

The State Government did not respond to questions about how many community members are living at outstations without water testing and how they could keep their water safe for consumption.

Water Minister Dave Kelly's office said responsibility for water testing lies with the Department of Communities, and forwarded NIT's request to Housing Minister John Carey.

Mr Carey did not respond before publication.

By Sarah Smit

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