It’s a fallacy that all 'Australians' have access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene

Clean water can help to break the link between poor hygiene and eye diseases such as trachoma.
Clean water can help to break the link between poor hygiene and eye diseases such as trachoma.
(Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association [CAAMA])

Nina Lansbury Hall, Cindy Shannon, Paul Jagals 11 July 2016

Nations are gathering in New York this week to discuss the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to improve health, wealth and well-being for countries both rich and poor.

As a developed nation, it might be assumed that Australia will easily meet these new goals at home – including goal number 6, to ensure “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. But the unpalatable truth is that many Australians still lack access to clean water and effective sanitation.

The World Bank’s Development Indicators list Australia as having 100% access to clean water and effective sanitation. But a discussion paper we released last week with our colleagues outlines how some remote Aboriginal communities struggle to meet Australian water standards.

Making water safe

High standards of health and well-being are unattainable without safe, clean drinking water, removal of toilet waste from the local environment, and healthy hygiene behaviours.

The Western Australian government has reported that drinking water in some remote communities is contaminated with uranium, faecal bacteria and nitrates above the recommended levels.

This contamination – combined with problems such as irregular washing of faces, hands and bodies (often without soap), and overcrowding in homes – means that residents in these communities suffer from water- and hygiene-related health problems at a higher rate than the general Australian population.

The health situation in affected communities throws up some sobering facts. Australia is the only developed country that has not eradicated trachoma, a preventable tropical disease that can cause blindness. It persists in remote areas with poor hygiene, where children repeatedly pass on the infection.

Cleaning faces can break the link with long-term ear and eye health impacts such as trachoma and deafness.
Cleaning faces can break the link with long-term ear and eye health impacts such as trachoma and deafness.

The Footprints Network

Similarly, glue ear, which is influenced by poor water and hygiene practices and can cause permanent hearing loss and developmental difficulties, is prominent in these communities. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that one in eight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported ear and/or hearing problems in 2012-13. This is significantly more than non-Indigenous people.

Installing properly managed community swimming pools can provide a community-wide (and enjoyable) amenity that will also contribute to preventing glue ear, trachoma and other hygiene-related infections.

Community swimming pools
Community swimming pools have been found to be the best way to ensure clean skin and prevent the spread of neglected tropical diseases.


How committed is Australia to delivering at home?

In signing up to the SDGs last September, the Australian government stated that this agenda:

…helps Australia in advocating for a strong focus on economic growth and development in the Indo-Pacific region … [and is] well aligned with Australia’s foreign, security and trade interests.

What is glaring about this statement is the lack of any mention of a national focus.

Australia should focus on delivering safe water at home as well as abroad – especially given Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s new role as a member of the United Nations' High-Level Panel on Water.

Our discussion paper sets out how Australia can approach the task of delivering safe water, sanitation services and hygiene practices both at home and in the Asia-Pacific region.

One crucial recommendation is for government departments to avoid addressing the 17 SDGs (which have 169 different targets) as a simple “checklist”, because many of them overlap and intersect in complex ways.

For example, education quality (SDG 4) can affect gender equality (SDG 5), which in turn affects behaviour around water use and hygiene (SDG 6). Similarly, within SDG 6 itself are targets to protect water-based ecosystems, but this obviously influences the accompanying targets of water quality and universal human access to safe water.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that access to clean, safe water and sanitation could reduce the global disease burden by almost 10%. The UN SDGs provide aspirational goals to address this. In Australia, the disease burden is low but persistent. This means that the goal for proper water and sanitation cannot be said to have been satisfactorily met.

This week’s UN talks offer an ideal time to put Australia’s remote communities in the spotlight and draw much-needed attention to the preventable toll of water-related health issues they still experience.

Previously published by 'The Coversation' (Creative Commons)


Nina Lansbury Hall
Sustainable Water Program Manager, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

Cindy Shannon
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), The University of Queensland

Paul Jagals
Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland