Laramba resident Stanley Fletcher is worried that long-term exposure to the community’s drinking water is making people sick.
- Indigenous Australians living in remote areas are disproportionately impacted by kidney disease
- Professor Paul Lawton is investigating whether drinking contaminated water contributes to these health issues
- In April 2021, the Northern Territory government announced a $ 28 million funding package for water quality in remote communities
“The kids and the little babies need good water for their kidneys, for their growth development,” Mr Fletcher said.
Laramba is a remote Aboriginal community, roughly 205 kilometers west of Alice Springs, that is home to about 300 people.
Its water comes from a bore, and uranium occurs naturally in the area.
A 2020 Power and Water report found the community’s water was contaminated with 0.052 milligrams per liter of uranium, more than three times the concentration limit recommended in Australia’s drinking water guidelines.
Is drinking contaminated water contributing to health issues?
Professor Paul Lawton is a kidney specialist with the Menzies School of Health Research and is leading a study to answer that question.
“In remote Northern Territory communities, there are great concerns about the quality of drinking water right across the Territory,” Professor Lawton said.
“Almost all remote communities are reliant on bore water and, as a result, there are concerns that groundwater is being exposed to large amounts of minerals, particularly heavy metals.”
Compared to those who live in urban areas, Indigenous Australians living in remote areas are disproportionately impacted by kidney disease.
It is not known if water quality is contributing to health issues such as kidney disease requiring dialysis or diabetes, or if water quality concerns are overblown.
Professor Lawton said it was important to provide certainty to remote residents, one way or another.
“If people have concerns about water quality – whether it’s related to contamination, taste, color or even temperature – the theory is they are much more likely to go off to the shop and buy some soft drink,” he said.
That is a phenomenon known as “diversionary drinking” and something Mr Fletcher says is happening in his community.
“Most of the kids hardly drink water,” Mr Fletcher said.
Mr Fletcher says he also tries to avoid drinking water from the tap whenever he can.
“We are buying bottled water,” he said.
“It puts a hole in your pocket, especially if you buy every pay day all year.
“Water should be free. We shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
Study expected to conclude in 2023
Professor Lawton said existing water quality from remote Northern Territory communities would be married with remote community pathology results over the past two decades.
The pathology tests analyzed will be from blood and urine tests of kidney disease that have been collected for clinical purposes.
“[It will] look at not only the relationship between [the results] and the burden of kidney disease, but [also on] the progression of kidney disease and the concentration of heavy metals over time in remote communities, “Professor Lawton said.
The study is expected to be completed in 2023.
Health not the only concern
In the remote community of Beswick, about 116km south-east of Katherine, residents say the quality of water is costing them financially.
Beswick’s water is very high in calcium, also known as ‘hard water’.
Nearly every tap in the area is heavily calcified and residents say the hard water is damaging appliances many people cannot afford to replace.
“The south gets damaged from all the calcium that builds up,” resident Patricia Curtis said.
Ms Curtis said this also had an impact on bigger, more-expensive appliances.
“The washing machines sto get stocked up with all that lime and calcium build up,” she said.
“That costs more money and we have to wash our clothes by hand and go to someone else’s home to do our washing.”
Government investment underway
In April 2021, the Northern Territory government announced a $ 28 million funding package for water quality in remote areas.
The government said the package would spend $ 7 million each year, over four years, to improve water quality and supply in Laramba, Engawala, Yuendumu, Epenarra, Imanpa, Atitjere, Warruwi, Angurugu, Beswick and Numbulwar.
Laramba is set to get a pilot water treatment trial and new water infrastructure.