A novel approach that has been developed to build the capacity of First Nations water operators to ensure they understand the public health significance of their role and feel empowered to action
The delivery of safe drinking water plays a critical role in the viability, self-determination and sustainability of First Nations communities. Delivering safe drinking water to remote communities is a complicated and challenging task which requires new approaches and solutions. It is widely recognised that at there are no ‘one size fits all’ or simple technological fixes for treating water in remote areas. It is also recognised that the ‘people factor’ plays a vital role in ensuring compliance in the delivery of safe drinking water. More importantly, working in partnership with First Nations communities is essential to support self-determination and to create fit-for-purpose solutions that integrate cultural, social, economic and environmental considerations.
This case study aims to highlight a novel approach that has been developed by Queensland Health in partnership with Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island local governments, to build the capacity of First Nations water operators to ensure they understand the public health significance of their role and feel empowered to action (or escalate issues) when adverse monitoring signals occur, or treatment is compromised in order to help reduce microbial contamination incidents of drinking water supplies.
This approach has been instrumental in forging strong relationships and trust between Public Health Units and participating communities, and has demonstrated major improvements in water quality management.
In Queensland, drinking water supply services to First Nations communities are supplied by local governments (e.g., Indigenous Councils) which are registered as service providers under the Water Supply (Safety and Reliability) Act 2008.
Despite the application of mandatory Drinking Water Quality Management Plans, a number of First Nations communities face ongoing challenges with respect to the provision continuous supply of safe drinking water.
Some communities have experienced regular and/or long-term drinking water quality incidents that could potentially pose a risk to public health.
In 2016, Queensland Health Public Health Units (co-regulators of registered drinking water service providers) observed a concerning history of non-compliance with Queensland’s drinking water quality regulatory framework among some Indigenous Local Governments. This was evident by the high volume and duration of reportable incidents. Some communities were subject to drinking water advisories that had remained in place for over one year.
At that time, it was identified that many of the 31 drinking water schemes operated by Queensland Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island Local Governments may have posed a significant risk to public health, demonstrated by poor levels of regulatory compliance, prolonged use of boil water alerts, and ongoing maintenance and operational concerns. For some communities, there was insufficient water or inadequate water quality to manage basic needs.
A number of Indigenous Local Governments faced the prospect of enforcement action from both Queensland Health and the Water Supply Regulator within the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water (DRDMW).
Prosecute or Partnership
It was recognised that enforcement action would do little to resolve the underlying causes of the issues. In other words, a new perspective on drinking water was needed by public health authorities to actively engage with Indigenous Local Governments which have limited resources, expertise and largely rely on state and federal funding to operate.
The solution: establishing a novel approach by building capacity of indigenous water operators
In 2017, Queensland Health’s Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service’s Tropical Public Health Services team, with assistance from the Departmental Water Unit, worked in collaboration with the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC), DRDMW and the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning to develop a pilot program that would pave the way for the Safe and Healthy Drinking Water in Indigenous Local Government Areas Program (SHDWP).
System review: understand the problem first and then establish a methodology
The initial phase of the pilot program involved conducting a full system review of the drinking water supply scheme serving each community. This was undertaken by an independent water treatment expert in collaboration with and the two regulators (Queensland Health and DRDMW).
In both communities, findings from preliminary assessments of the drinking water supply schemes identified the presence of hazards with the potential to jeopardise public health.
The hazards identified were broadly associated with water treatment plant operations, disinfection, operational and verification monitoring and lack of public health awareness and understanding of health impacts associated with poor water scheme management.
Based on these findings, the program delivery methodology and objectives were designed, developed and piloted in.in two Torres Strait Islander communities: Hammond Island (also known as Kirriri) and Warraber Island.
An independent evaluation of the pilot program implemented on Kirriri and Warraber Islands was carried out by researchers from the University of Queensland, which reported significant success (Hall et al. 2021).
Following this evaluation, in 2018, Queensland Health committed to expand the pilot program to become available to mainland communities in Far North Queensland. From 1 July 2019, the program was expanded further to became available to all 17 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Local Governments (31 communities) across Queensland.
3-step delivery methodology
Step 1: Consultation and partnership
The first step of the delivery methodology includes an initial consultation to offer the program and consult with the Indigenous Local Government, water operators and community/leaders.
This first step is based on willingness and joint agreement with the requirement that the local government (council), operators and community must be ready and open to making changes for the better.
Step 2: Intensive support
The initial consultation is followed by an intensive support mentoring program, where Public Health Unit staff with competency in water operations dedicate themselves to the community before integrating and embedding themselves into the water operations team for a minimum of six months. In many instances this has involved a routine week in / week out rotation.
This approach has been instrumental in forging strong relationships and trust between Public Health Units and participating communities, cementing the partnership approach and ensuring program delivery is fit-for-purpose, place and people.
The intensive support model also provides a platform for the Public Health Unit and Local Government to work in true partnership to rectify ongoing and historical issues with drinking water supplies. This is achieved by aligning implementation of seven specially designed standard, yet adaptable, objectives (refer to Table 1) with culturally appropriate and measured capacity building and support.
Step 3: Ongoing support
Following the completion of the intensive support phase, the program delivery then transitions to an ongoing support model tailored to the specific community, ensuring improvements are able to be maintained by the community and trouble-shooting emerging issues.
Broadly, ongoing support aims to:
- Undertake follow-up visits to previous intensive support sites on a scalable as needs basis;
- Maintain contact and relationships with community, council’s staff, water operators and their supervisors;
- Conduct routine checks (catchment, treatment infrastructure, monitoring equipment, monitoring results, SOP availability and currency);
- Support, mentor and work alongside operators while demonstrating good work practices; and
- Flag any identified public health risks for investigation by senior officers.
|Working with council staff and operators to form a true and genuine partnership to apply the Program, ensuring the Program is tailored to address the specific drinking water supply needs of council and aligns with local customs and culture.
|Improve technology and infrastructure
|Advocate and collaborate with other regulators and infrastructure investors to support and fund enhancement of water treatment infrastructure and monitoring technology and equipment in order to modernise existing schemes, ensure safety of drinking water schemes, and up-skill and build operators’ capabilities.
|Improve water treatment plant operations by developing plant specific, user friendly, point of use reference material (standard operating procedures) and/or instructional videos to establish consistency and confidence in operators’ abilities and boost their capabilities.
|Public health risk training and up-skilling
|Embed an understanding and awareness of public health risks that relate to drinking water quality for all water treatment plant operators who partake in the program.
|Competent use of equipment
|Ensure essential sampling and verification monitoring equipment is available to operators and used competently.
|Provide onsite and remote support
|Provide remote and onsite mentoring and support to each water treatment plant operator who participates in the program.
|Reduce incidents and improve compliance
|Reduce prevalence of drinking water incidents and improve regulatory reporting systems.
Table 1 – The seven (7) standard objectives
It is recognised that one size does not fit all, and every water operator and every community is unique. Hence the objectives (listed above), whilst important, provide the foundation and site-specific challenges/needs can be factored in, enabling the program to be tailored to meet the needs and challenges of each community and water operator.
Underpinning each of the objectives is the philosophy that empowering First Nations water operators to take pride in their role, and understand its importance in protecting the health of their communities, is essential.
Funding and roll-out
The Safe and Healthy Drinking Water in Indigenous Local Government Areas Program is funded by Queensland Health.
As of August 2022, the program has been rolled out in 23 First Nations communities across Queensland since its inception in 2017.
The program sets a benchmark for best practice in the delivery of public health improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
It has demonstrated that improvements in water quality, operator competence and regulatory compliance can be achieved within a relatively short period of time.
The impacts of the program on communities’ health and wellbeing are undeniable. It has also demonstrated the development of strong relationships between councils’ staff and the regulator’s officers as well as the exchange of knowledge sharing between operators.
While the program relies heavily on reciprocal commitment, many of the prerequisites for success displayed in this initiative are transferable to other First Nations communities as well as being applicable to other basic service delivery in these communities, including wastewater treatment and solid waste management.
The program is being implemented to the remaining communities.
This case study was developed by Chris Blake (Team Leader – Environmental Health (WaSH) Tropical Public Health Service Cairns – Queensland Health), Greg Jackson PhD (Director, Water Unit – Health Protection Branch – Queensland Health) in collaboration with Eric Vanweydeveld (Director of Aquanex Pty Ltd) with the approval of Queensland Health.
 Nina L. Hall, Heidi Grodecki, Greg Jackson, Carroll Go Sam, Brad Milligan, Chris Blake, Toni Veronese & Linda Selvey (2021) Drinking water delivery in the outer Torres Strait Islands: A case study addressing sustainable water issues in remote Indigenous communities, Australasian Journal of Water Resources, 25:1, 80-89, https://doi.org/10.1080/13241583.2021.1932280