A year ago, an audit called for immediate action after finding potentially-fatal contaminants in drinking water in Aboriginal communities in WA. Now, communities are asking why they're still at risk.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

Source:
The Point
24 May 2016 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 24 May 2016 - 11:29 AM
 Key issues:
  • Community relying on bottled water due to contamination
  • Leaders call on WA government to provide long-term solution to water supply
  • Contaminated water potentially life-threatening for infants
  • More funding needed for long-term fix: WA Housing Authority

While living in the remote WA community of Pandanus Park, Peter McCumstie was hospitalised several times with severe pneumonia. 

"I'm talking about being hospitalised for 10 days at a time with infection in my lungs and in my stomach," he says. 

A former CEO of Pandanus Park, which primarily uses bore water, Mr McCumstie lived in the 130-strong community for over nine years. During that time, he says water contamination was "one of the biggest ongoing issues" in the community. 

"Children were coming down with sores on their scalps and on their arms - pretty vicious sorts of sores that I actually think was through washing in the contaminated water," he says. 

"The children (were) constantly coming down with diarrhoea and different versions of the flu... and particularly some of the older people that were suffering from other illnesses were finding that those illnesses were exacerbated by the quality of water, and I put myself in that category."

"Looking in hindsight, one could very easily I think, be quite correct in saying that the water quality had a lot to do with it."

WA Auditor General's report

In May last year, a report by the WA auditor-general revealed widespread water contamination among 27 of the state's remote Aboriginal communities.

It found that 80 percent of communities at least once failed drinking water tests for Naegleria or E. coli microbes, while one in five communities had water that contained unsafe levels of nitrates or uranium - either of which can cause the potentially life-threatening Blue Baby Syndrome if consumed by infants. 

The report said that although no health data was available to determine how many people fell ill as a result of drinking contaminated water, "the risks are significant at a community level". 

Mr McCumstie says his health has significantly improved since he moved away from the Pandanus Park community. 

The auditor-general's report recommended the WA Department of Housing determine how it could improve water quality in remote communities to meet Australian Drinking Water Guidelines by December 2015. 

Nigel Hindmarsh, WA Housing Authority Acting General Manager Commercial Operations, says the department has since implemented a new water quality strategy and ensured regular checks of its water treatment systems. 

Pandanus Park now relying on bottled water

Patricia Riley, acting CEO of Pandanus Park, says she only learned about unsafe nitrate levels in the water this year. 

"I got a bit worried and concerned, because I was feeding my grandson (from the tap), and the other parents were doing a similar thing too," she says.

The state Housing Authority's Nigel Hindmarsh says nitrate notices have been issued to the community on a quarterly basis.

Ms Riley says the community had received emails from the state Housing Department advising against feeding babies with tap water, but were given no explanation as to why. 

She says young people in the community are prone to diarrhoea and stunted development, while older people often experience tooth decay and ingrown toenails. 

"We want healthy water," she says. 

"Just give us some sort of system that can actually filter our water, so we're drinking pure, clean water and our young generation is going to be healthier."

In March, the Housing Authority delivered what it says was an eight-month supply of bottled water for three bottle-fed infants at Pandanus Park. The supply was exhausted within two weeks. 

Ms Riley says she helped distribute the bottled water.

"They said it's only for the three months old (children)... and pregnant woman, and I said well if a parent comes to me and asks me that he's concerned about the health and wants a bottle, even though that child is one or two years old, I'm giving that parent (a bottle)," she says.

"It's alright for us adults, we can handle it. But I said any child that needs a water, I'm giving (it) to that parent." 

She says Pandanus Park desperately needs a more long-term solution. 

Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service CEO Vickie O'Donnell backed has backed the calls. 

"Bottled water gets brought in, but you still have quite a large number of community people who still have to drink nitrate and get sick themselves," she says.

Water quality improving, but more funding needed for long-term fix

Tap water at Pandanus Park is safe for consumption by most people, according to the WA Housing Authority's Nigel Hindmarsh. 

"Our testing shows that the tap water in Pandanus Park is (under the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines) safe to drink by most people, except for bottle-fed infants under three months old," he says. 

Mr Hindmarsh says 15 remote communities are currently being supplied with bottled water for infants less than three months old.

However, he says water quality has been improving, with the number of failed water quality tests reduced from 136 in 2012-14 to 73 in the past two years.

Mr Hindmarsh says more state and/or Commonwealth funding is required to upgrade existing infrastructure to ensure water quality in remote communities in the long-term.

"Poor water quality in some communities fundamentally reflects inadequate infrastructure, an area for which the Commonwealth Government was primarily responsible for funding until it walked away from its longstanding obligations in 2014," he says. 

Read the full response from the Government of Western Australia Housing Authority.