Topic: Water for Remote First Nations Communities in Australia

The Leigh Creek Pipeline Upgrade Project achieved positive social and economic participation outcomes because of the high level of engagement with the First Nations communities.

Given the current landscape in Australia, with a strong focus on Closing the Gap, advancing the Reconciliation movement and a commitment by the Federal Government to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in the Federal Parliament, it is timely for the water industry to consider how it can better engage with Australia’s First Nations peoples and communities in the design and delivery of water infrastructure projects.

As outlined in this case study, the effective engagement of First Nations peoples can have a profound, positive and sustained impact on economic participation as well as social and emotional wellbeing outcomes for First Nations peoples and their communities.

The Leigh Creek Pipeline Upgrade Project achieved positive social and economic participation outcomes because of the high level of engagement with the First Nations communities as part of the development and delivery of the project.

This case study highlights good practice approaches to First Nations engagement in a water infrastructure project.

Gathering of the site crew (Credit: KSJ Consulting)


“In South Australia, and consequently in this case study, the term Aboriginal is used to respectfully refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a collective. This is not intended to exclude Torres Strait Islander peoples, or people that identify as being of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.”

In 2021, SA Water and its capital delivery partner McConnell Dowell Diona joint venture (MDJV) worked together to deliver a new 22-kilometer pipeline between Copley and Lyndhurst in South Australia’s far north (the Leigh Creek Pipeline Upgrade Project).

The new pipeline replaced an aged and deteriorating water pipeline from the decommissioned Leigh Creek coal mine to an alternative location adjacent to the Outback Highway.

The project took place on the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha people in the northern Flinders Ranges, 550 kilometres north of Adelaide.

The project was designed to:

  • provide water security and reliability of supply of safe drinking water to a number of communities in the region
  • provide safer access to SA Water’s operational teams and contractors when performing routine inspections and maintenance on the water supply
  • remove old infrastructure from culturally significant land. This was an important step towards healing country for the Adnyamathanha people.

One of the key objectives of this project was to develop respectful relationships with the traditional owners and the local Aboriginal community.


Through its Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), SA Water has committed to recognising and celebrating Aboriginal cultures by building greater Aboriginal participation in its workforce, improving customer and community relations with Aboriginal communities, and continuing to improve water infrastructure and opportunities in Aboriginal communities. 140F[1]

This commitment is reflected in SA Water’s procurement strategy for its capital delivery program, where its delivery partners are required to respectfully engage Aboriginal communities with economic opportunities in capital delivery programs through the employment of a local Aboriginal workforce, and inclusion of local Aboriginal owned businesses in the supply chain.

To deliver this project in line with its commitment, MDJV partnered with KSJ Consulting Service Pty Ltd, a 100 per cent South Australian Aboriginal-owned business specialising in Aboriginal engagement and economic participation development.

KSJ Consulting Service’s mandate was to drive community consultation and engagement in a culturally appropriate way and to develop economic opportunities for the local Aboriginal communities during and beyond the project lifecycle.


To develop respectful relationships with the Traditional Owners and the local Aboriginal community through a genuine and culturally appropriate way, a comprehensive Aboriginal engagement plan was developed.

The engagement plan focused on engagement with the Adnyamathanha people (as the Traditional Owners of the land on which the project was being undertaken) as well as the local Aboriginal community to:

  • inform them about the project
  • identify potential training, upskilling and employment opportunities for local Aboriginal job seekers
  • identify supply chain opportunities for local Aboriginal-owned businesses.

The Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA), being the Native Title incorporated body representing the Adnyamathanha people, was contacted in the first instance to inform them about the project and discuss employment and supply chain opportunities.

On-the-ground engagement was also conducted with the local council, local service providers and community members. This approach proved critical to the project’s Aboriginal engagement success because it was discussions with a local employment service provider that led to the engagement of local Adnyamathanha job seekers on the project site crew, and a local Aboriginal-owned business to provide site cleaning services for the project.

As part of the cultural heritage assessment of the project area, conducted by SA Water during the planning stage, a cultural heritage induction session was provided to the project site crew to help them identify potential cultural heritage sites/artefacts and understand the appropriate process to follow should any sites/artefacts be discovered during works.


The project presented several challenges to achieving the Aboriginal engagement objectives:

  • The Adnyamathanha people had significant concerns about the physical impact of the Leigh Creek coal mine on their country and the level of remediation work since the closure of the mine back in 2007.
  • Leigh Creek and the nearby towns of Copley and Lyndhurst are remote areas, located approximately 550 kilometres north of Adelaide, with limited industry and employment opportunities. The closure of the Leigh Creek coal mine continues to have a significant economic impact on these townships.
  • ATLA was in administration at the time of the project which made it difficult to directly engage with the Traditional Owners.

Critical success factors

This project achieved a high level of engagement with the Aboriginal communities affected by the pipeline upgrade as well as positive economic participation outcomes.

Some of the critical success factors for the Aboriginal engagement were:

  • Commitment and appropriate resourcing from the project owner.

SA Water has a strong commitment to Aboriginal engagement through its RAP and this was reflected in the delivery of this project. Importantly, this commitment was resourced to ensure successful Aboriginal engagement planning and delivery.

  • Developing a well-considered Aboriginal engagement plan which seeks Aboriginal communities’ views and inputs throughout the lifecycle activities of the project.

In this case, an Aboriginal-owned and operated consultancy (KSJ Consulting Service) was engaged to provide an Aboriginal perspective as well as their expertise in Aboriginal engagement.  This was critical to building an effective plan, ensuring Aboriginal perspectives were well considered, and enabling effective relationship building with Aboriginal stakeholders.

  • Developing a deep understanding of the context, stakeholders and communities affected by the project.

This included conducting a thorough desktop analysis of stakeholders, communities and Traditional Owners of the area, Aboriginal population statistics and any sensitivities (particularly cultural sensitivities) associated with the project.  Through this work, the engagement team identified that the Traditional Owners had significant concerns about the physical impact of the previous coal mine on their Country and the lack of remediation work.  This was important given the project involved disruption to land to install the new pipeline.

  • Taking the time to engage, on the ground engagement, and talking with stakeholders and gathering valuable local knowledge and intel.

It was through this engagement that a broader and deeper understanding of the stakeholders was developed which ultimately led to achieving the Aboriginal economic participation objectives for the project.  For example, engagement with the local employment service provider led to successful recruitment of Adnyamathanha job seekers, and engagement of a local Aboriginal-owned cleaning service on the project.

  • Cultural awareness, training and understanding across the project team.

A cultural heritage induction session for the site crew was delivered before construction began.  A NAIDOC Week event was also held on site where an Adnyamathanha site crew member, who was also an Elder, spoke about the cultural significance of the project site for the Adnyamathanha people.  This gave the crew a deeper appreciation and respect for the Country on which they were operating.

Outcomes and benefits

The Aboriginal engagement had a positive impact on local communities and a range of stakeholders and enabled genuine and long-term relationships to be formed.

The high local Aboriginal workforce participation generated from the project had a positive effect for the local Aboriginal communities as well as the broader Leigh Creek community.

Several Aboriginal business opportunities were created from the project, including an Aboriginal-owned recruitment company that was engaged to hire site crew labour and an Aboriginal-owned traffic management company that provided services for the project. One of the Aboriginal site crew members was subsequently engaged by MDJV on another SA Water project. The Aboriginal-owned cleaning service used on the project was also deployed to another construction project in the Leigh Creek township.

The delivery of the cultural heritage induction and the NAIDOC Week event contributed to developing cultural respect and understanding of the project team and site crew.


This case study was produced by KSJ Consulting Service Pty Ltd (Kiara Johnson – Director and Shouwn Oosting – Principal Consultant), SA Water and McConnell Dowell Diona in collaboration with Eric Vanweydeveld for Water Services Association of Australia.

It was published in the Closing the Water – for People and Communities – Gap report, a review on the management of drinking water supplies in First Nations remote communities around Australia, November, 2022. The full report can be found here.

 [1] SA Water Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan July 2020 – June 2023; see