Report of the 6th National Conference

Remote Community Water Management Project

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Robyn Grey-Gardner, Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre with Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Centre for Appropriate Technology


All Aboriginal communities need a water supply that has an adequate amount of good quality water that meets the purpose for which it is utilised. An unreliable or inadequate water supply may lead or contribute to health problems for residents or prevent livelihood opportunities. The most important factor for water provision, however, is maintenance. This paper describes the principles of the risk management approach, and the
implementation practices developed during the Desert Knowledge CRC’s Remote Community Water Management Project.

The Australian Government Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Centre for Appropriate Technology were partners in the project who engaged five small remote Aboriginal communities to develop their own water management plans. The community water management plans were based on risk management principles, and were designed by and for the communities themselves to carry out. Support materials or resources to assist with ongoing maintenance were developed specific to each community. The paper describes the resources, which outlines the hazards and risks to each water supply and how often maintenance activities are required. The project’s implementation process provides important lessons for the uptake of similar programs to improve water supplies through better management in remote Indigenous communities.

The Risk Management Process for Small Systems

The risk management approach is the accepted guiding principle now in Australia and around the world for water management (Australian Government 2004, World Health Organisation 2004). The risk-based approach is described in the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines’ Framework for the Management of Drinking Water Quality (Australian Government 2004). It is a comprehensive process with 12 elements, or stages, that is based on the following steps described by Naudebaum et al 2004:
  • Understand the water supply system.
  • Identify hazards, hazardous events and sources.
  • Estimate the level of risk for each identified hazard or event – consider the likelihood and consequence/impact/severity.
  • Identify and plan preventive measures for each hazard or event, and implement and monitor preventive measures - (establish critical limits and monitoring systems, corrective action and verification procedures and documentation).

The Framework covers all aspects of the water supply system from the catchment or source (such as a bore), to storage (such as tanks), treatment processes (such as chlorination) and distribution system (such as pipes) to the tap where it is consumed. The approach has the capacity to be applicable to large systems such as a capital city water supply. However, this project found that it is equally applicable to small systems. In the case of small systems, there are generally fewer regulatory procedures and people involved in management because the system is less complex.

Making Water Management Relevant

The project worked with five small remote Indigenous communities. The communities were Kanpa (WA), Port Stewart (Qld), Yappala and Worro Downs (SA) and Mpwelarre (NT). The communities all had the primary responsibility to manage their own water supply, and as such did not have a water utility or regional area service provider to oversee maintenance and water quality testing. Each community also had a strong purpose or livelihood such as tourism, breeding camels or cattle. The continuity of the community livelihood activities provided a strong incentive for the communities to keep their water supplies maintained. All communities fulfilled the most important basic principle of the Framework, which is a commitment to the management of the water supply.

The project identified a way of making water management a priority for communities by broadening the risk management approach, which is specific to water quality; to include the management of water quantity and understanding the water required to fulfil community aspirations. Put simply, the project aimed to work with the communities to ensure the water is adequate for the purposes for which it will be used. For example, is there enough high quality water for the residents to drink, and enough lower quality water for stock to drink?
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The project also used the risk management resources currently available, and used adaptive strategies to make the process relevant to the Aboriginal community context. The Community Water Planner (CWP) (Australian Government 2005) is a CD which can create a water management template using risk management principles. The CWP is a reliable method to outline the potential risks to a water supply and suggested preventive activities. The CWP can be updated and used as a water plan by itself. However, we found that its format is best suited for people who have computer skills and an understanding of technical terms. The community members involved in the project had a preference for the information to be simplified and targeted to their individual circumstances and needs.

Implementation of Water Management Strategies

The risk to a water supply is highest when there is no maintenance. A water supply that is not maintained will, eventually, break down. The risk management approach endorses preventive measures and multiple barriers which, when developing the water management strategies, translated into quite simple monitoring activities. Preventive measures are activities that reduce the hazards. Multiple barriers are points to stop contamination from spreading throughout the water supply and reaching the tap. A preventive measure may be to check that a fence around the catchment or bore site is intact. It is a barrier to stop animals from accessing the catchment area or bore site. Another barrier further along the water system may be valves installed in the pipeline to prevent backflow. These relatively simple measures can have a big impact on maintaining water quality.

To prevent problems in the future, each community worked to make their own water management plan. The plans were developed over a period of a year during meetings and workshop activities, and involved four steps outlined in Figure 1. The first step was to survey the water supply and take water samples for microbiological, chemical and radiological testing. The water quality and survey results were presented and discussed with each community. The participants then analysed the available information and ranked the hazards and potential risks. The most effective activity was walking along the water supply system, talking about the positive and negative aspects of the supply. This activity created a good atmosphere to demonstrate problems and think through the practicalities of solutions on the spot.

This process of sharing information, ranking and prioritising hazards and making rectifications to the water supply built the capacity in each community about water management practices and principles. This information was matched to the community’s water needs and aspirations. The Sustainable Livelihoods pentagon (IDS 2006) was a useful tool for assessing the community’s available assets and capability to manage the water supply. It enabled community members to identify their available assets (human, financial, social, physical, and natural) that could be harnessed in implementing their water management plans.

The management strategy development included identifying improvements to the water system, and appropriate management responses. Activities to reduce the risk to each water supply were actioned as part of the learning process for participants, and included fencing and concreting around the bore, burying pipes to prevent damage from fire or cars, and cleaning up rubbish.
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Figure 1 The four steps to create a water management plan

Management and Monitoring Activities

All communities already had a good understanding of the basic operation of their water supply. Developing the water management strategies, however, allowed the community members to identify gaps in their knowledge and what support may be needed for future management. Monitoring activities are clearly outlined in resources such as log books, posters and manuals, and were developed according to the needs of each community. For example, Yappala and Worro Downs wanted step-by-step manuals that showed their water supplies as a schematic or basic map, with photographs of key points and a description of the characteristics of the system. The manuals outlined tasks that should be completed as routine or weekly, and other activities that should be completed six-monthly or annually. The layout is useful because activities are clearly described, and water system points can be easily recognised.

The anticipated recurrent costs for the water supply infrastructure and guidance for asset management was also included in the Yappala and Worro Downs manuals along with contact sheets and directions for emergency procedures. Water quality problems are often triggered by sudden changes such as high rainfall events or equipment failure. It is important to foresee such events, and recognise what procedures are necessary during these times.

There was a range of resources developed during the project. In some communities the resident population changes, so efforts to provide information about how to carry out maintenance procedures or what to do when unexpected situations arise (such as a reduction in water pressure) were described in posters as flow charts or decision trees, with photographs depicting key components such as a power box or a pump. The posters were displayed at key locations around the communities, so they are visible when needed, and act as a reminder at other times. Early in the project a full suite of water tests were conducted to assess the supply. Apart from any emergencies, it should not be necessary to regularly test the water supplies. It is cost-effective and appropriate to ensure that the risks are reduced and preventive maintenance is carried out. The community residents have been trained to chlorine dose their tanks, and would be able to send samples off to the laboratory if required. However, this would only be necessary under extreme circumstances – such as if many
people have been sick and continue to get sick after the water supply has been treated. Kanpa is using a hand-held kit to test their water quality for parameters such as pH, Total Dissolved Solids and temperature. These tests will enable the community to create a baseline of information to see whether there are any changes in water quality over time. Changes in the water quality should trigger a response from the community since a change in pH, for example, may mean that the water quality is deteriorating or warn that the pipes may corrode.

Water Use

All case study communities had no means to accurately measure how much water they used. During the project, some rough measurements were taken by calculating how often a storage
tank with a known capacity was refilled. This provided a basic understanding of the water usage patterns. A more comprehensive understanding of water use patterns is needed for sustainable water management. Four of the five communities installed water meters so community members would be able to keep track in future of the amount of water the community was using, and to better understand the seasonal trends. Water meters can also be used to indicate leaks in the water system.

The Holistic Approach

The Remote Community Water Management Project successfully engaged five Aboriginal communities to understand the principles of risk management and create management plans to maintain the integrity of their water supplies. “What we learned from the project is that little things can turn into big things. Small things need to be fixed because they can have severe consequences sometime later
on” project participant, Rex McKenzie, Worro Downs.
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The process is not complicated, but is staged. Meetings and water management plan development procedures are well spaced allowing time to ensure that the fundamental principles are well understood by participants. The staged approach proved beneficial because community residents were able to continue with other commitments, and between meetings talk among themselves and generate greater community resident involvement. Early in the project, for example, there was a core group of people in each community who were interested in the project, and driving the process. Once the benefits of the approach and the management strategies were realised there were more and more people in each of the communities who volunteered to participate in the project. Project participant from Yappala, Leonie McKenzie summed up this experience when she explained “There is pride in having the knowledge about the water supply and everyone is more involved now”.

The holistic approach – incorporating water quality, quantity and the use of the water can provide a basis for communities to make sustainable choices. Project participant, Preston Thomas said that “the information and capacity building has helped the community to understand what aspirations are realistic and the limits to growth for Kanpa”.

The water management plans are the beginning of a regular monitoring and maintenance regime that, combined with an annual review program, will continually improve the water supplies in each of the participating communities. Water risk management cannot eliminate hazardous events, but a methodical approach to planning will certainly reduce the risks and dramatically improve the chances of a timely and appropriate response from community members when needed.


Australian Government (2004) Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, National Health and Medical Research Council, Canberra, online

Australian Government (2005) Australian Drinking Water Guidelines Community Water Planner – A tool for small communities to develop drinking water management plans, National Health and Medical Research Council, online:

Ministry of Health (2005) A Framework on How to Prepare and Develop Public Health Risk Management Plans for Drinking-Water Supplies, Wellington, New Zealand,

Naudebaum, P., Chapman, M., Morden, R and Rizak, S (2004) A Guide to Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment for Drinking Water Supplies, CRC for Water Quality and Treatment, Research Report Number 11.

Institute of Development Studies (2006) Livelihoods Connect, creating sustainable livelihoods to eliminate poverty, online:

World Health Organization (2004) Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality, Vol 1:3rd ed, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

For Further Information
Robyn Grey-Gardner
Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre|PO Box 3971, Alice Springs, NT 0871
Ph: 0408 825 727 Email:
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