EcoEng Newsletter No. 11, October 2005

Maintenance of infrastructure in remote indigenous communities in Western Australia's Western Desert

By Stewart Dallas, EcoEng-Correspondent
Research Officer DK CRC
Remote Area Developments Group (RADG)
UNEP-IETC Environmental Technology Centre
South Street, Murdoch
Murdoch University, Western Australia 6150

Stewart recently completed his doctoral research on low-cost graywater treatment for rural areas and is presently a research officer with the Remote Area Developments Group (RADG) at Murdoch University's Environmental Technology Centre in Western Australia.

Note: Open forum with Dr. Stewart Dallas, CRC Western Australia in

Date: Oct. 26, 9:00 UTC/GMT
Topic: Maintaining solar powered & renewable systems in a remote desert setting.




Maintaining essential services like water and sanitation in the harsh environment of remote Australian Indigenous communities is difficult and costly. The Remote Area Developments Group (RADG) at Murdoch University is conducting a scoping study investigating how such services are and can be maintained.

Half of the Indigenous population in Australia lives in regional or remote communities. There are three main types of Indigenous settlement in Australia: town-based communities, major discrete communities, and outstations which are typically small, family-based settlements often in very remote areas. There are currently 110,000 Aboriginal people living in 1291 remote communities throughout Australia. The average community size is 107 people, with the vast majority of these in Desert Australia, where less than 500 mm rainfall is received annually. Operating and maintaining the essential services of power, water and sewerage in this region is a costly undertaking - one which is heavily subsidized by the Federal Government. For the Indigenous communities to remain viable, these essential services must be as robust, efficient, and culturally appropriate as possible. This is one of the key aims of the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (DK CRC). The DK CRC is a national research effort to improve desert livelihoods by linking Indigenous and local knowledge through both science and education.

In this region, "remoteness" is a relative term. While a remote major community of several hundred people may have deep sewerage, reticulated (centralized) water, and a large diesel power station, all operated and maintained by trained staff, an "outstation" comprising several families has to be entirely self–sufficient in all these essential services. Outstations are isolated, independently powered and serviced family communities. They have been strongly supported as a means by which indigenous Australians can return to "Country" and away from many of the larger communities where social problems have arisen from previously enforced settlement. While outstations provide for an improved way of life for their inhabitants, they are typically expensive to operate and maintain.


The case study

Fig. 1: Ponded septic effluent surrounding the house yard

One of the case study communities of this research is one of the larger indigenous communities in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands ("The Lands") in Western Australia's Gibson Desert. The Yarnangu are the traditional owners of the Lands which comprise some 185,850 km2. Originally run as an isolated mission outpost in the early 1900s, the Ngaanyatjarra Lands now offers an all-weather airstrip, art and culture centre, Shire council offices, school and power station for its community of over 500 people.

Water has always been vital for survival in these arid lands, and rock holes and soaks remain important parts of the indigenous culture. Bores fitted with diesel or electric pumps now provide a generally continuous supply of potable, but often highly mineralized, water to communities. (It is well documented that the long-term consumption of such quality water is deleterious to human health.) While the increased availability of water has generally resulted in improved health conditions, it has necessitated significant investment in wastewater treatment and disposal systems. The situation is exacerbated by increasing populations in many of these communities.

One elder resident has been successful in establishing a satellite community for his and his brother's families about one kilometer from the main township. This is an alternative model to the outstation model and is an interesting initiative - perhaps it can provide the social improvements and benefits of an outstation without the costs and difficulties of an isolated outstation. This is one of the research questions that this Desert Knowledge CRC project is endeavoring to answer. It is examining how the maintenance of the essential services is carried out in remote Indigenous communities, what is working, what isn't and whether there is a better way.

Fig. 2: Ponded septic effluent flowing away from house

A recent visit to the satellite community found one of the septic systems overflowing and wastewater ponded out into the yard (see attached photos). In the city we would call a plumber, and the problem would probably be fixed in a few days; in the desert such a scenario is a veritable maintenance headache: where is the nearest plumber? Where is the nearest backhoe to dig out the drainage trenches? How long will any pipe and plumbing materials take to be delivered to site? And at what cost? This is a result of poor installation - a common cause of unplanned maintenance in remote communities. Prior to the creation of a local government council (or "Shire") in 1993, building supervision was inadequate, and the legacy of those contractors who exploited the system continues to this day. However considering that the Shire covers 160,000km2 (about four times the size of Switzerland) contractor supervision is no mean feat.

The above, of course, raises other questions: perhaps septic systems aren't suitable systems in this region, and compost and dry toilets with graywater reuse would be more appropriate? Perhaps solar photovoltaic systems should be the power system of choice to displace expensive diesel— but then who will maintain them? Could each community have its own qualified electrician and plumber? Is this even feasible? Is some form of integrated service delivery possible?

The first stage of this Desert Knowledge CRC project is due to report later this year and many innovative and exciting ideas which have incorporated local knowledge have been found by researchers. It is hoped that in the life of the CRC many of these ideas will find application for the improved viability of remote communities.





Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku Principal Activities Plan available at Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku website:

Water: A report on the Provision of Water and Sanitation in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. (1994). Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, ACT.

Desert Knowledge CRC:

Remote Areas Developments Group (RADG):

Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT):

© 2005, International Ecological Engineering Society, Wolhusen, Switzerland