Parents in the remote north-western New South Wales town of Bourke have resorted to mixing cordial with their only available drinking water in order to mask its flavour and smell.
The town only has access to bore water from the Great Artesian Basin due to ongoing droughts drying up their main drinking supply, the Barka-Darling River, around a year ago.
The bore water has been reported by the community to have elevated sodium levels and residents have said it tastes bitter and salty and smells like chlorine, leaving parents with no other choice but to dilute it with cordial or turn to cheaper alternatives.
“I was buying cordial just to take the taste off it because lemon juice wasn’t working so I had to up it a little bit,” one mother, Fleur Thompson, told NITV News.
A paper released by the Australian National University (ANU) in December found that around half of Indigenous children aged between zero to three who live in rural New South Wales communities lack access to clean drinking water and are consuming sugar-sweetened drinks.
The report highlighted the health implications of drinking sugary drinks at an early age, which included the development of sustained obesity, diabetes, hypertension and reliance on sugar.
The report included a recommendation to keep children away from drinks with added sugars all together during the early stages of their life.
The paper's author, a researcher with ANU, Dr Katherine Thurber, told NITV News that in drought-stricken communities parents are choosing to buy sugary drinks as opposed to bottled water.
“We found that among kids that are less than three years old around half were having sugary drinks, whether it was cordial, soft drinks or sweetened tea and coffee,” she said.
In Bourke, Ms Thompson said the decision was not preferable, but a difficult "economical choice".
“When you go to the supermarket you’ve got soft-drink for 80 cents… It’s a no brainer for you, you’ve got to look after your budget," she told NITV News.
Another mother told NITV News the bore water was giving her rashes and blisters on her skin.
Ms Thompson said the issue goes beyond just a horrible taste as the community is forced to bathe in the bore water as well.
“There’s no other bathwater, there’s no other shower water, so there’s not much that can be done except from moving [to another town],” she said.
General Manager of Bourke Shire Council Ross Earl said he was not aware of any comments around the poor water quality and told NITV News he enjoys drinking it.
“Our water meets Australia’s drinking water guidelines… it doesn’t propose major health implications,” he said.
“We will continue to take action to make sure the water continues to meet those standards.”
But Kevin Whyman, a Barkandji man, said this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s not like you can go to the tap these days and get a nice glass of water…. Even when you shower in the water it sticks to your skin it’s like wearing another layer of chemicals, it’s not good for you,” he said.
“People boil it, they do whatever they can but it’s still not drinkable. So they are turning to cordials and soft drink… but if they can’t afford the cordial they will buy the soft drink. Even water itself is really expensive.”
Mr Whyman, who is diabetic, said he is worried about his heath because, at times, he has also had to turn to sugary drinks.
“If they don’t sort this water [issue] out by releasing the water up north… it’s going to cause more health problems because people are going to be more sick with the sugar intake,” he said.
In Euchareena, a community of around 70 people roughly 500 kilometres south-east of Bourke, the water situation is even grimmer with residents reporting no access to water at all.
The local Indigenous community are currently petitioning for a bore to be built in the town before Christmas this year.
Petition organiser Fleur Dennis said the community is in "desperate need of help".
"We are really desperate because we are a working family on a low income and we can't afford to be paying $450 a month for water," she said.
"The Dubbo council keep writing us back letters... saying we can get 20,000 litres of free water but that's a lie because to get that we have to pay for the carriage [which is $450]."
Ms Dennis said the community's only dam dried up 18 months ago and since then the water pipes have been switched off.
NSW is now in its second year of a predicted "multi-year drought" with the Department of Primary Industries designating 20.7 per cent of the state as currently facing "intense drought", and 52 per cent of the state being drought-affected.
Only one per cent of the state is considered not to be affected by the drought.
Earlier this week, the NSW Government announced plans to invest $78 million into water initiatives - like dams, pipelines, pumps and bores - to help drought-affected communities.
$57.81million of the funding will be spent on water projects in towns along the Murray-Darling basin and a further $20.25 million will be given to rural councils.
NITV News has contacted Dubbo Shire Council for comment on the water crisis in Euchareena.