Topic: Water for Remote First Nations Communities in Australia

The notion that the continuous provision of a basic level of service for drinking water is a fundamental human right, is understood but not always mandated.

In 2022, the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) commissioned Professor N. Cromar and Emeritus Professor E. Willis, from Cromar Consulting and Flinders University, to undertake a literature review and brief analysis on how other jurisdictions define a basic level of service in the context of supplying safe and reliable drinking water to inform approaches for regional and remote communities in South Australia.

The report, Basic Level of Service: Settings for long-term water security in remote South Australia, was published in August 2022 on SACOSS’ website:

Key recommendations

Some of the key findings highlighted in the report are as follows:

“Minimum/basic levels of service for water security are not clearly or consistently defined in other jurisdictions and there is no single model for a basic level of service of water services in other jurisdictions, nationally or internationally, or in other sectors which are readily transferrable to the South Australian context “p 5.

“Responsibility for funding and operations of regional and remote water supplies differs across the six states and two territories”p 12.

“In Queensland, level of service (LOS) objectives are legislated only in the South East region, and the government has developed guidelines to assist other regional service providers to set their own non-mandated objectives” p 13.

“In NSW, levels of service are not clearly or consistently defined although a recent revision of Department of Planning, Industry & Environment (DPIE)’s Safe and Secure Water Program aims to ensure a ‘minimum level of service’ in those smaller towns where there is no economic benefit to providing critical infrastructure” p 17.

“In 1997, all States and Territories agreed on a common definition of a Community Service Obligation (CSO) … In their 2019 paper identifying and overcoming barriers to collaborative governance in Indigenous communities, Jackson et al (2019, p. 5) described a CSO as ‘a taxpayer funded subsidy to provide affordability equity of services such as electricity and water to remote and rural areas” p 18.

“The notion that the continuous provision of a basic level of service for drinking water is a fundamental human right, is understood but not always mandated, including in parts of the
developed world such as Australia.” p. 40

“It is not sufficient simply not to discriminate against certain groups or individuals, but States must take positive measures to include everyone and to redress past disadvantage and reverse patterns of inequalities. […] assessing who is unserved or underserved through the lens of discrimination and equality demands policymakers address the structural causes which have created the disadvantage with comprehensive measures.” p. 41


The report suggests that a human rights framework be applied to the provision of a basic level of safe and reliable drinking water to:

  • Enable provision of water services that are available, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable for all communities in SA regardless of their physical location;
  • Foreground the principles of core obligations, progressive improvement, and the use of maximum available resources to be considered in determining not only the sustainability of water services but their ability to deliver on the most basic needs of all individuals;
  • Provide a means for South Australia to redress past disadvantage and consider how we move beyond a “minimum” standard for unserved or underserved groups and take positive measures to address structural causes of inequality;
  • Bring a different paradigm to discussions with the water sector; making the provision of safe drinking water not something simply to be desired for all, but as a legal entitlement, and importantly putting individuals and societies rather than economies at the centre of the debate.

Linking OHCHR framework with basic level of service provision (Source: SACOSS, page 48)

SACOSS has long been calling for a basic level of service to be established and implemented across SA, and welcomed the State Government’s 2021 commitment for self-supplied remote communities.

As quoted by the SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley:

“The development of a basic level of service will be critical to lifting the standard of water provision to historically underserved communities across SA”.

“It will help to ensure that both the State Government and SA Water prioritise water security improvements, and it provides a baseline to guide investment for both SA Water and the Government”.


The South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) is the peak body for the non-government health and community services sector in South Australia.

SACOSS undertakes research to help inform community service practice, advocacy and campaigning, and through a range of events promotes cooperation, and the sharing of resources and information.


This case study 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.

This case study was produced by Eric Vanweydeveld in collaboration with Rebecca Law for Water Services Association of Australia.