Report of the 6th National Conference

Working to Improve Water and Sewerage Provision in Discrete Aboriginal Communities in NSW : Murdi Paaki Region Case Study

Page last updated: 07 July 2008

You may download this docoument in PDF format

PDF printable version of Report of the 6th National Conference (PDF 3631 KB)

Thaddeus Nagas, David Ferrall and Stephanie Smith, Greater Western Area Health service

Thaddeus Nagus
“I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, Irukandjii people, and any other Elders present – it is great to see such a great turnout. Our presentation will be covering two parts. It will explain the work being carried out in NSW and within the Murdi Paaki region, which is the area in which David and I work”.

Stephanie Smith
“Public Health Units across NSW have reported ongoing problems with the operations of water and sewerage systems in Aboriginal communities. Project Managers often come to ask for financial assistance with sewerage, for example, as these issues fall outside the Housing for Health program. The Aboriginal Environmental Health Unit has been unable to provide assistance in an ongoing manner, so the Unit has had to sit back and work with government agencies to work out what is the core of the problem. How can we work from a government perspective to assist communities? One of the options that came up was to expand the Colisure drinking water monitoring program, but the issue arises, why monitor if you can’t fix? Across NSW we don’t have a state-wide program to rectify these issues.

Common Issues

  • Outfall from an unmaintained common effluent system (sewerage ponds) discharging to a creek.
  • Septic tank damage.
  • Waste from trenches overflowing in a back yard.
Stop-gap measures are commonly implemented that are unsustainable – financially, environmentally, and for public health. For example, a sewer well was manually pumped out by one individual for over 12 months before the pump was repaired.

Water supply infrastructure needs to be protected and requires regular maintenance.

Some discrete communities are dependant on rainwater.

Water quality monitoring of community and private water supplies (eg, tanks) is often undertaken on an ad hoc basis.

Action Taken

  • NSW Aboriginal Community Water and Sewerage Working group was formed.
  • An issues paper was developed.
  • Main aim - that all Aboriginal communities in NSW have access to safe, sustainable drinking water, and functioning sewerage systems.
Top of page
An example of the number of people around the table - NSW Group Representatives:
  • NSW Health.
  • Public Health Units (GWAHS and HNEAHS).
  • National Indigenous EH Forum (enHealth).
  • Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
  • Department of Commerce.
  • Department of Local Government.
  • Department of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability.
  • Department of Natural Resources.
  • NSW Aboriginal Land Council.
  • Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
  • Local Government and Shires Associations of NSW.
  • NSW Water Directorate (Walgett Shire Council).
  • Federal Department of Family Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • NSW Aboriginal Housing Office.
The group asked who were the most vulnerable communities that needed their focus. It is very important to involve peak community organisations and the Local Government and Shires Associations.
It was decided to look at discrete Aboriginal communities using the CHINS definition which identifies those discrete communities as geographical locations inhabited mainly by Indigenous communities with housing or infrastructure that is owned or maintained on a community basis.

There are 66 discrete Aboriginal communities in NSW. They receive water in one of two ways - either to the boundary of that community, or by their own water supply, bore or septic tanks. Of the 66, the majority of them received water to their boundaries from utilities, with only about 20% managing their own water. However, in terms of sewerage, over half of the communities have to manage their own sewerage systems.

Issues Paper Findings

Preliminary desk top analysis (that did not involve field work):
  • 61 Aboriginal communities are likely to require ongoing assistance with the management of their water supplies.
  • 58 communities are likely to require assistance with their sewerage systems.
  • Broad costs - $3 to $5 million per year (on operations and routine maintenance only, it does not include capital upgrades).

The Paper Concluded That

  • The roles and responsibilities are unclear amongst government and communities.
  • Mainstream Government support services currently have limited capacity to support LALCs.
  • Many rural Local Government councils are financially challenged – particularly those rural or remote who struggle to upgrade their capital infrastructures.
  • There is a skills shortage in rural communities (health and building, engineering, plumbing, electrical). For example, in Bourke there is only one plumber and no electrician.
  • Limited technical and financial capacity within LALCs.

Key Recommendations of The Paper

  • A state-wide recurrent funding program for operation and maintenance.
  • A public health risk-management system to improve the monitoring, such as developing site-specific tools.
  • An Aboriginal traineeship program to build capacity in the operations and maintenance to reduce skills shortages.
  • Improved state government technical support and advice to LALCs in the management of their water and sewerage systems.
  • Need to base this on partnerships and the program needs to be flexible”.
Top of page
Thaddeus Nagas
“Water and Sewerage Operation and Maintenance Program in the Murdi Paaki region is:
  • Funded by NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs under the Two Ways Together initiative.
  • Auspiced by Murdi Paaki Housing in partnership with PHU at Broken Hill.
  • Program funded over six years.
  • Coordinated by a licensed plumber, with operational and strategic support from the Broken Hill Public Health Unit.
  • Targets communities on Aboriginal Land Council Land where they are not adequately addressed by local government or similar.
  • The plumber works well with the community.


  • A huge area covers the former Murdi Paaki ATSIC region (approximately 303,000 sq klms) - impacts on travel time and the size of the team servicing the area.
  • 57,680 people live in the region (about one person for every 5 sq klms).
  • 7,846 Aboriginal people live in the region (14%). In comparison, the Aboriginal population of NSW is 1.9%.

The Communities

  • The Program targets 12 communities on land owned by Local Aboriginal Land Councils.
  • Most communities are former missions that have had ownership of the land transferred to them under the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
  • Water and sewerage infrastructure ranges from being connected to local council services, to having independent systems, or a combination of both.

Purpose of the Program

  • To monitor, maintain and repair water and sewerage services to communities on LALC Land (once it got to the boundary because of money, and Councils thought money was going into the communities - this was a misinformation issue that has now been overcome.
  • Not for household plumbing problems (that are normal housing provider responsibilities).

The Team

  • The maintenance team comprises the Water and Sewerage Coordinator and two Aboriginal plumbing apprentices (which is fantastic).
  • The team covers a lot of distances and therefore spends a lot of time away from home.

Main Priorities at This Stage

  • Public Health Unit’s role was engaging with LALCs and Local Government to become a face for people to phone. We are also able to be contacted through the housing provider, Murdi Paaki.
  • Three-monthly surveys of communities.
  • Rapid response to water and sewerage breakdowns.
  • Routine maintenance and modifications in houses in the communities.

Some of The Usual Problems

  • Infrastructure breaking down.
  • Overgrown effluent ponds.
  • Burst water pipes (before in most communities there was no expertise to replace or repair, but now people can just contact us).
  • Poor water pressure.


  • Provides timely response to community concerns, working for our mob and making our people healthier and stronger.
  • Improves health and safety.
  • Identifies systemic problems.
  • Preventive maintenance.
  • Off-sets R+M costs.
  • Improved networks and communication”.
Top of page
David Ferrall

“Where are we Going? Water Quality Monitoring Program

Two Parts to the Program

  • Colisure Program for communities with an independent water supply (groundwater). Monthly verification samples taken by the Public Health Unit
  • NSW Health Drinking Water Monitoring Program used for communities connected to town supplies.

Colisure Program

  • Operates in two Murdi Paaki communities, and is a field test.
  • Field results which are run by a community person are faxed through to the Public Health Unit every fortnight – there are also visits to the community to take verification samples, which are also sent for analysis to be assessed against the Australian Drinking Guidelines.
  • Enables problems to be identified early.

Access for Water Sampling

  • Sampling points have been installed in communities connected to town water supplies, with the permission of the communities involved.
  • Provided easy access point for sampling.
  • The results of these are web-based databases, and provide feedback to the community on water quality.

Recent Upgrade

• New pump station and gantry has been installed, but with no ongoing maintenance program it may result in it returning to a poor condition.

What we are looking at doing at the moment is

Current State of Play

  • Signed agreements with Shire Councils, Land Councils and Local Government to maintain the infrastructure on land council land.
  • All communities but one have sewerage pumping stations, and are the biggest source of problems as far as breakdowns go, so we are now looking at trialing Telemetry systems to enable rapid responses. This will reduce the risk of environmental harm by sewerage overflows into the environment. We are currently trialing one, and looking at rolling it out to other communities.
  • With the service agreements we will be able to obtain an estimate of costs to provide repairs and maintenance upkeep. We will be able to inform the Working Groups on how much it does cost to provide these services to the communities.
  • Looking to incorporate traineeships in Water and Wastewater Operations into the service agreements. This should develop local capacity such as qualifications in water and waste water infrastructure. Councils are keen to do this as there is a skills shortage in these remote areas, leading to difficulty in retaining or attracting staff.
  • Water management plans being developed based on community water planning tool - a resource for community to manage risks that exist.

In summing up, despite various capital upgrades over the years, there has been no routine maintenance of water and sewerage infrastructure undertaken on LALC land in the region. Service agreements with local governments are the most practical option, given there is already an existing workforce and the close proximity of these communities to local council services (in most cases). This also includes services such as rubbish services, and not just sewerage and water services.

This program is only a stop-gap measure. It is essential that recurrent funding is made available in the longer term to ensure that the gains made to this point are sustained. This gets back to the issues identified by the Working Groups. Hopefully they will develop strategies with long-term solutions and provide infrastructure in these communities to the same standard of those in the mainstream communities”.

For Further Information
David Ferrall
PO Box 457, Broken Hill, NSW 2880
Ph: 08 8080 1504 Email:
Top of page

Document download

This publication is available as a downloadable document.

Report of the 6th National Conference(PDF 3631 KB)