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How Indigenous communities are reducing water demand

In northern Australia, many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are struggling to obtain first-world utility standards, such as 24/7 access to safe drinking water.

Griffith University’s Dr Cara Beal, in partnership with the Queensland state government and regional service providers, set out to tackle the unsustainably high levels of water use in remote Indigenous communities through The Remote and Isolated Community Essential Services (RICES) project.

“A critical pathway in improving the resilience and sustainability of water and water-related energy is to understand what is being used, why it’s being used, and the cultural and social drivers behind that use,” she says.

Beal and her team installed smart water and energy meters in four remote communities—two in the Torres Straits, one in mainland Queensland, and one in outback Central Australia—to understand community consumption and raise awareness within the communities to drive behavioural changes.

Overall, the project has resulted in a 30-40 per cent reduction in outdoor water use across the four communities, as well as big savings on associated energy consumption.

“Prior to the project there was an assumption that because the communities don’t pay for their water use, they are perhaps less concerned ,” she says.

But for many in the communities, it was the first time that they had been asked about their water consumption or received feedback about how much water they were using.

“They really appreciated the knowledge of where they could save water, rather than just being told to save water or ‘you’re on restrictions’,” she says. “However, we also found that when the community hadn’t experienced severe water restrictions—such as it being physically turned off for nine hours per day—behavioural changes were more difficult, and we didn’t observe as stronger reduction in what they were using.”

Beal says that their research uncovered five key drivers of high water use in the communities: health-related, such as dust suppression, cooling and heat relief, as an amenity for gardens, washing and cleaning, particularly boats, equipment and seafood, as well as social gatherings and sorry business. “Water is essential for healthy people and healthy homes and in this respect water conservation messages should be very clearly directed toward efficient outdoor use and leak reporting” stated Beal.

“Ultimately, we found that more than just consultation, it has to be about bottom up genuine involvement in understanding and reducing water. Our research underlined the complexity of behavioural change and the importance of communication, and finding the best ways of working together.”

Beal says the Torres Strait Island Regional Council is now considering a rollout of smart meters across all the entire region thanks in part to the success of the project and its reception within the communities. The council agree that the RICES project has been a huge success. “It’s exciting work, and it’s possible that we can save tens of millions in water supply infrastructure by applying these findings for demand management practices.”

“We have developed a set of community-based water demand management options  based on our findings, and now it is time to hand over the implementation to local councils and the community,” she says.

“It’s had a real impact—but the next challenge is in maintaining these behavioural changes and improving skills capacity within communities to sustainably manage their water supplies”.

To find out more about the The Remote and Isolated Community Essential Services (RICES) project and download the final project report, visit Griffith University’s Community-based Water Management in a Changing Climate page.


About the author: Elle Hardy writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world. You can follow Ellle on Twitter @ellehardy.

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