The importance of context

*Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog post may contain images of people who have since passed away.

When you travel around the world, the US or just within your own state, you can tell that every community and area is unique in its own way. You would probably assume (as I did) that public services like water and energy to those different communities would be tailored to the people and area they are servicing. However, water management plans in many communities in Australia are very similar to each other. What works in the urban areas of Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne does not necessarily work for the people who live in remote areas of Australia.

There is a significant amount of academic and government research that has shown that sustainable water and energy management in urban Australia can have a great effect on natural resources.[1] [2] However, urban resource management is only part of the ever-present water scarcity solution, especially in Australia. There have been limited studies on the actual daily water consumption of rural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, but the data that has been collected so far indicates that these communities have high per capita water usage.[3] Due to limited communication between the communities and service providers, unreliable baseline data about water use within these communities, complex governance structures, and lack of resources and manpower, managing and maintaining water services in these remote Indigenous communities has been a challenge.

RICES (Remote and Isolated Communities Essential Services Project) is the research team I have joined for the summer to better understand water and energy use in rural Indigenous communities. This team has partnered with three different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities located in Northern Queensland, Central Australia and the Torres Strait. Indigenous Australians have been living on the mainland for about 60,000 years and on the Torres Strait Islands for about 10,000 years, long before European settlement.[4] The RICES’ partner communities were also, at one point, turned into historic mission, reserve or station sites by Christian missionaries or government entities.

Australian missions, reserves, and station sites were extremely similar to American reservations for Native Americans. As was also the case with European colonization of the United States, when the British began to colonize Australia, European diseases were introduced, causing epidemics that killed a large number of the Aboriginal population. Partly in response to dwindling Aboriginal populations, the British established government reserves for remaining communities.[5]

Weipa Mission

The British Empire then laid out a plan for governing Aboriginal people in various state acts throughout the 1800s. These acts placed the British government in charge of the protection of Aboriginal people through reserves.[6]

From my research, it is still a bit unclear as to how missions, reserves and stations are distinct from each other, and it seems that they are often interlinked. Settlements like stations were managed by the government, Aboriginal missions were run by religious organizations and reserves were unmanaged and settled by Aboriginal people.[7] The various Australian states were then put in charge of managing and funding their settlements.

Children at AIM Church at Cherbourg

The complex nature of the management of missions, reserves and stations led to differing experiences within these settlements. Many were strictly controlled with a focus on assimilating Indigenous Australians into Western society. Populations of Aboriginal people still lived outside of these managed settlements, pursuing traditional ways of life and culture “On Country.” However, many chose to live around the settlements as the assimilation process led to disconnection from family and culture, moving into Western forms of education and employment or for access to governmental services.[8]

Erambie, New South Wales

This system of governance of Indigenous peoples led to cultural erasure, language erasure, racism, separation from country and power imbalances, which were common in colonization as seen throughout world history past and present.

Aboriginal people enjoyed no regulatory independence once colonized. When the Australian Constitution was created in 1901, it stated “in reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” Further illustrating their managed lives, between 1910 and 1970, families were separated with Indigenous Australian children being removed from their original families and relocated to White Australian families or boarding settlements. These children have come to be referred to as the Stolen Generations.[9] Aboriginal Australians were not even considered Australian citizens until 1967.

Current government policies and processes have made some inroads into equality in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island affairs over recent decades, however, Indigenous Australians are still at a disadvantage. Taking into account all of the Indigenous populations in industrialized countries, Indigenous Australians have the most health concerns and highest poverty rates. Specific to Australia, they have the highest unemployment rates, shortest mortality outlook and lowest level of education.[10]

This tumultuous past between the Australian government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people has contributed to a controlled and confusing water management system. The way water services are handled in communities is dependent on a variety of factors, including where they are located.

Due to Australia’s governmental structure, water and energy management operates under a centralized model that involves multiple levels of government – federal, state and local service providers. This can be challenging for local communities who do not live near or have much personal interaction with these larger government entities. It is estimated that water supply plans developed for a couple thousand people are sometimes used in remote areas where there are tens of thousands of Aboriginal residents.[11]

The remote and sometimes isolated nature of certain communities in Australia means that these communities are often living away from established infrastructure systems. Essentially, they are living off the grid, which means that power generation has to be done locally and generally involves diesel generators. These generators are expensive to operate and leave a large environmental footprint. Because remote Indigenous communities can be located in harsher physical environments, water and energy systems can break down more easily, needing greater maintenance.[12] This puts a strain on service providers and can lead to unreliability of these systems as well as the inability to perform prompt repairs. However, without energy generation, these remote communities would not have access to safe drinking water or electricity.

Many remote Indigenous Australian communities do not pay for their water and supplying these communities with water can be up to ten times more costly than the national average.[13] While the government and service providers are primarily motivated to find water management solutions that are more cost effective, improved water management planning and processes in remote and isolated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are also beneficial in improving social, economic and environmental aspects.

When considering socioeconomic disadvantages, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities need service plans that also help with community development. Improving community well being is an important part of RICES and one of the reasons I am so excited to be working with them this summer.

RICES is working to improve current Australian water management strategies in these remote and isolated Indigenous communities by creating an adaptive framework that is empirically-based and community-driven. I hope that this framework will be used by government and service providers to implement better water and energy management services to these individual communities. The community plans that we are creating through one stage of this project place emphasis on culture, sense of place and other barriers/motivations that are specific to these communities. The principle being applied challenges the one-size-fits-all assumption, showing that water and energy management processes need to be tailored specifically to each community’s needs. The community and cultural focus of the RICES Project makes me excited for the future of environmental planning. I am so lucky to be a part of a team of researchers trying to improve the lives of remote and isolated Indigenous communities and the Earth.

[1] Tawfik, S. (2016). Pursuing sustainable urban water management through co-governance: A case study of Marrickville Council. Melbourne, Australia: Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities.

[2] Kemp, R., Parto, S., & Gibson, R. B. (2005). Governance for sustainable development: Moving from theory to practice. International Journal on Sustainable Development, 8(12). doi: 10.1504/IJSD.2005.007372

[3]Beal, C. D., Stewart, R. A., & Larson, S. (2014). Exploring the residential water-energy nexus in remote regions: results from a Far North Queensland water end-use pilot study. Water, 41(3), 78-82. (and forthcoming RICES reports)







[10] Green, D., & Minchin, L. (2014). Living on climate-changed country: Indigenous health, well-being and climate change in remote Australian communities. Ecohealth, 11, 263-272. doi: 10.1007/s10393-013-0892-9

[11] Yuen, E., Mathew, K., Anda, M., & Ho, G. (Feb. 2001). Water harvesting techniques for small communities in arid areas. Water Science & Technology.

[12] Grey-Gardner, R. (2008). Remote Community Water Management. Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

[13] Beal, C. D., Gurung, T. R., & Stewart, R.A. (2016). Modelling the impacts of water efficient technologies on energy intensive water systems in remote and isolated communities. Clean Technology & Environmental Policy, 1-11. doi: 10.1007/s10098-016-1241-9