As the drought tightens its grip across many parts of Australia, a national-first project has demonstrated how co-developing water management tools with remote communities can yield significant water savings.

Dr Cara Beal, from Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute, led the RICES (Remote and Isolated Communities Essential Services) project alongside PhD researcher Mel Jackson and major partners Ergon Energy, Power and Water, Torres Strait Regional Council and the Queensland Government.

Dr Cara Beal installs a household smart water meter in a Cape York community.

The project was initiated in 2014 to determine how water and water-related power is used in homes in remote communities when the consumer does not pay for water, and develop a more reliable, resilient essential service model in consultation with residents.

After a successful pilot project with the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council, just south of Cooktown, the research project was rolled out to four remote communities, including three in Far North Queensland and one in Central Northern Territory.

“After the big drought we had a great idea of what was happening in urban Queensland but not so much outside the urban sector,” Dr Beal said.

“The idea was to engage with communities around what are the problems with water being delivered to their homes.

“So the bigger picture is sanitation, hygiene, environmental health; these issues in remote communities are poorly understood and disproportionately have poorer outcomes than in urban areas.”

Dr Beal said the RICES project combined smart metering energy and water technology with community-based efficiency strategies to achieve reductions in the water and energy use in remote and isolated communities.

“Through engagement with the community, and backed-up with empirical evidence from smart meters, we co-developed with project participants culturally-appropriate, affordable and practical demand management strategies to inform a more reliable and resilient essential services model in remote northern Australia,” she said.

The RICES project took place over three stages, and the encompassing key findings were:

  • communities can, and will, use less water and energy if they know how to and what the benefits are of doing so;
  • treated (‘town’) water is not the preferred drinking water source in remote communities (as for many non-urban communities in Australia);
  • residents can “manage what you can measure” – provided the data is used meaningfully;
  • community-based water demand management strategies (education, feedback, storytelling, information sharing, encouragement) are overwhelmingly preferred by the participants as tools to motivate behaviour change and encourage (outdoor) water efficient practices;
  • government (Local, State, Federal) urgently need to incorporate, as a default approach, community engagement from the outset of any water, energy (and broader) management policies in regional/remote/isolated; and
  • there is a clear and urgent need to improve the environmental health and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) outcomes in regional/remote/isolated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Project participant Patrick Burke and Dr Cara Beal discuss water use and community-led water savings trials.

High energy use water systems, such as desalination, are common in island communities. In remote mainland communities, diesel-fuelled bore pumps and treatment plants are typically employed,” Dr Beal said.

By working with the community to understand the drivers of high outdoor water use, we observed reductions of between 25-over 50% in water and energy use.

A key finding from Stage One of the project was that high water use is largely due to health, wellbeing, quality of life issues and ageing assets, rather than a wayward use of a free resource.

“Access to reliable and safe water supplies is essential for good public health outcomes, and we found that high water use, in many cases, was attributable to health and wellbeing outcomes, making blanket water restrictions potentially problematic in remote communities, Dr Beal said.

Dr Beal said she hoped the project findings would spark a dialogue around the issues of water security and broader environmental health and sustainability outcomes in remote communities.

“We need genuine cross-agency and cross-governmental management of this, and by understanding ownership and responsibility of these issues we can work together towards better outcomes,” she said.