Two weeks ago, reports emerged that the Utopia Homelands, a Northern Territory Indigenous community put in the spotlight by John Pilger’s recent film, was suffering acute water shortages after a bore at Amengernternenh collapsed during council maintenance works. The Urapuntja health service and several communities have had little to no access to water and sanitation for 10 whole weeks. Fifty kids have no drinking water at their school.
To make matters worse, a massive outbreak of scabies has resulted from the water shortage: the health service has no water to wash bedclothes or flush toilets. Scabies, when left untreated, can potentially lead to kidney disease. Both scabies and chronic kidney disease are experienced at inflated rates in Indigenous communities.
How things change: prior to the Northern Territory Intervention, studies revealed the Utopia homelands to be one of the healthiest Indigenous communities in the NT, with a lower prevalence of several chronic illnesses.
According to reports on the Water for Utopia Facebook page, the water situation doesn’t seem to have improved. I’ve contacted the health service and further information is pending. In the meantime, the Barkly Shire response has been so disappointing that fundraising is underway, in the hope that the situation can be privately rectified in a more timely fashion.
It seems that access to water is not quite so important if you happen to be living in an Aboriginal community in the NT. Just days after the situation at Utopia came to light, a video from the Irrkelantye community – an unofficial town camp near Alice Springs also known as Whitegate – started gaining attention on social media. In this video, residents claimed that the NT government had authorised the removal of a pipe that supplied Irrkelantye with water. The residents claimed that this was a deliberate move by the government to try to force them to move to alternative accommodation after many refused earlier in the year. NT minister Bess Price said that people with a “political agenda” were wrongfully advising Irrkelantye residents and told the ABC that the rudimentary water service – a piece of pipe attached to a tap at a nearby camp, she said – was cut because of health risks.
Irrkelantye has now been without water for more than a month. Again, the government’s response to the situation has been telling: Adam Giles, the NT chief minister, has stated that it is not his government’s responsibility to supply water to Irrkelantye because it’s not an official residential area. Yet Irrkelantye has a number of long-term residents, many of whom say they live in Irrkelantye due to overcrowding and perceived safety concerns at other camps.
Price said the supply of services to Whitegate is the responsibility of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, which has agreed to cover a water supply to Whitegate for the next year. But the decision to cut off the water was made by the NT government, indicating that while they don’t believe service provision is their responsibility, they feel service removal is.
If the water supply was posing health risks, surely the existing supply should have been repaired or upgraded? Clean water should have been delivered to the place where people actually live in the first instance – instead of being cut off in the hope that the residents would move on.
The removal of people from Whitegate has been on the NT government’s agenda since at least last year. In 2013 Alison Anderson, then the minister for housing, signed off on a recommendation to remove the residents and shut down the camp. Ironically, Anderson has emerged as a champion in the fight to save the community and will appear at a community protest planned today.
Access to clean water and adequate sanitation is considered a basic human right and is recognised as such by the United Nations. Many Indigenous communities are impoverished and must make do with limited access to services that the rest of the country simply take for granted.
Why should Aboriginal communities have to wait significantly longer for repair works to restore something as basic as the water supply? Why is it more important for residents to move on to other areas than it is for government to ensure supply? How can kids be expected to attend school when there is nothing for them to drink?
Australia is a wealthy country and the idea of entire communities not having proper access to clean water is unthinkable – even with the droughts we experience. That water is still considered to be a privilege and not a right for some Aboriginal communities speaks volumes about how little this country has progressed when it comes to addressing Indigenous disadvantage.
Celeste Liddle, "Ten weeks dry: water is still a privilege, not a right, in Indigenous Australia", The Guardian, 15/09/2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/15/ten-weeks-dry-water-is-still-a-privilege-not-a-right-in-indigenous-australia