Topic: Water for Remote First Nations Communities in Australia

Successful public participation takes time. It relies on building honest and genuine trusted relationships with the community.

This case study aims to highlight what contributed to the success of the public participation and engagement with the community of Borroloola as part of the delivery of a new water treatment plant for the town.


Borroloola is one of the most remote communities in Australia, located on the McArthur River in the Northern Territory, about 1,000 km south-east of Darwin. Borroloola lies on the traditional country of the Yanyuwa people.

In 2017, Power and Water Corporation undertook major upgrades of Borroloola water treatment system.

At the time of the project, a number of complex social and economic issues were evident in Borroloola. These issues were related to housing crisis and environmental concerns associated with nearby mining activities.

Historically, the people of Borroloola have felt ignored by various governments which has resulted in a deep scepticism of investment promises. This scepticism extended to infrastructure upgrades.

It is within this context that Power and Water Corporation delivered the upgrade project.


The project dealt with various levels of complexity (technical, social, geographical and logistical) as well as a wide range of challenges including a high level of political and social influence, uncertainty and a large number of stakeholders involved in different phases of the project with various interests.

The project team had to ensure the project wasn’t mistakenly associated with other local social and environmental issues occurring in parallel. Prior to and during the delivery of the project, media attention was on Borroloola regarding including water quality issues at a nearby outstation (i.e. a very small Indigenous homeland) and water quality and environmental concerns associated with a nearby mine.


To ensure communication and public participation were actively promoted and managed in a meaningful way, giving consideration to local characteristics (i.e. language, cultural and social context, and local sensitivities), extensive communication and stakeholder engagement activities were undertaken by the project team.

In addition to using “tried and tested” engagement strategies, the project also featured two new approaches to engagement for Power and Water Corporation.

Community’s participation in the project communication design and development

To design effective messages in line with the local context and the local Aboriginal culture, it was critical to utilise an audio-visual communication using sound and visual components.

To do so, the project team worked closely with some of the key leaders of the community, mostly women, to craft effective messages which later were broadcasted on the local radio and distributed across the community through factsheets and water stories.

Two community leaders were engaged to translate key messages from English to two local Aboriginal languages, Yanyuma and Garawa, which are widely spoken in the region of Borroloola.

A resident participated in the radio recordings by reading the key messages in both English and Yanyuma. Some of the school children were also involved in the recordings to reach all areas of the community by making the messages authentic and close to the community’s heart.

An Aboriginal community radio station in Darwin, Radio Larrakia, was engaged to put together the radio messages. Radio Larrakia has strong connections with all Aboriginal communities in the Territory and it was important to engage them to ensure cultural details were conveyed appropriately. The radio messages were then broadcasted by the Borroloola local radio, Mabunji Radio Station, across the region.

Public participation through an art work project with the local school

Borroloola’s water treatment system utilises gas chlorine which can be very dangerous if not handled correctly. Furthermore, Power and Water’s infrastructure, located on town outskirts and isolated from public view, can sometimes be the target of vandalism.

To manage these risks, the project team engaged the Borroloola community in an education and artwork project including school presentations from years 1 to 12.

To facilitate community engagement, the local Aboriginal Art Centre and school were empowered to design an artwork project to encourage community awareness and support for the new water treatment system. The Art Centre decided to engage the school to develop a series of Aboriginal paintings representing water animals and plants from the region. The artwork project aimed to celebrate both traditional and contemporary art of clan groups living in the area. This was maximised by a commitment from the project team to display the artwork at the treatment system.

Eighteen paintings by school students were printed on large steel sheets and displayed around the water treatment system compound. An information sign highlighting the meaning of the paintings and presenting the students involved in the artwork project was also installed on site to promote local pride in the facility.

The main objectives of this strategy were to:

  • Reduce vandalism and instil local pride in the new water treatment system.
  • Establish a link with the Aboriginal culture by integrating local art into an engineering project.
  • Create better community understanding of the water quality benefits being delivered by the new water treatment system.
  • Create better community understanding of the importance of water efficiency (reduced water wastage).

Official opening of the new infrastructure

To celebrate the delivery of the project, the project team organised the official opening of the site with the community, key stakeholders and several dignitaries from Power and Water and the government.

The event was scheduled in October just after the school holidays. The event was held during a very hot day (38 degrees) in the build-up season (very uncomfortable time of the year where weather conditions are very hot and humid). Despite these conditions the attendance to the celebratory event exceeded expectations with around 120 people including 45 school students and their families.

A ‘welcome to country’ was performed by one of the community’s elders, which highlighted the cultural significance of the surrounding area.

Certificates of appreciation for the school students who participated to the artwork project and local businesses who were involved in the project delivery were presented during the official ceremony.


Official opening of the site – The children showing off their art work – Welcome to country – Children receiving their certificates of appreciation

Critical success factors

This project was considered very successful because of the high level of engagement of the Borrooloola community.

  • Active communication and extensive stakeholder engagement delivered throughout the project established strong relationships between the community and the project team. Through the provision of timely, balanced, informative information (across a variety of mediums), the public participation process provided the opportunity for the community to be actively informed and to see understand what was being delivered for them, the benefits and the positive impacts that the project would have for the community. Such clarity around the water treatment upgrade project mitigated the risk of public confusion about the links to the other social and environmental issues occurring in parallel.
  • The public participation process was reliant on active engagement with Aboriginal community members to ensure cross-cultural communication was delivered effectively. This included seeking assistance from the community and local businesses for the delivery of key communications (e.g. through translation, radio recording, artwork project, local industry participation). The result of this public participation process was two-way – not only did it facilitate better community understanding of the project and its benefits, it also facilitated an improved the project team’s understanding of the complex cultural and social environment of the project. This process delivered greater understanding and respect between all parties

Outcomes and benefits

The project public participation fulfilled its intended objectives and has achieved expectations in terms of securing and maintaining strong community support for, and ownership of, the project.

Prior the initial stage of the public participation, acts of vandalism were carried out on Power and Water’s assets in Borroloola (reservoir and water mains). In addition, there were several incidents of theft, with equipment and tools stolen from the head contractors’ site soon-after they arrived in Borroloola.

Notably, from the initial engagement with the community throughout the project delivery no single act of vandalism was experienced. Similarly, during the entire period of construction, including the nine months of inactivity, there was no further theft, despite equipment and material supplies being left on site.

The community, through educational activities, is now aware of the value of their water supply and where it comes from.

Despite the challenges, the community was always actively involved and as a result took pride in the project outcomes. Local businesses were also very supportive of Power and Water and provided great value.

In 2019, during the management of tropical cyclone Trevor, which impacted Borroloola, Power and Water’s community engagement was positively influenced by the strong community rapport established during the water treatment upgrade project.


Official opening of the site – The children showing off their art work – Welcome to country – Children receiving their certificates of appreciation



This case study was produced by Eric Vanweydeveld (former Power and Water Corporation’s employee) and Joel Spry (Power and Water Corporation with the approval of Power and Water Corporation.