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Oodnadatta residents win battle for safe drinking water

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After decades of being exposed to potentially fatal bore water, residents in the South Australian outback town of Oodnadatta are finally set to have access to clean drinking water as part of a $41 million State Government pledge.

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Water Minister David Speirs announced the cash splash this morning, describing the proposed water upgrades as “life-changing for those that live in our regional communities who have long been crying out for better access to water”.  

InDaily reported in December that households in Oodnadatta – a remote town about 1000-kilometres north of Adelaide – were each being charged more than $300 a year to use what SA Water said was non-drinkable and potentially fatal bore water.  

SA Water has warned residents since the 1990s that they should never drink it, use it to brush teeth, wash food or get it up their nose as it could contain a parasite that causes the rapid destruction of brain tissue.

The SA Housing Authority has also warned Oodnadatta residents against drinking what it calls “undrinkable” and “unfiltered” rainwater, as the tanks provided at its leased properties are not intended to supply drinking water.

The situation leaves Oodnadatta residents to choose between drinking the questionable bore or rainwater, buying expensive bottled water, or taking containers to a clean water outlet set up in the town’s main street, which the State Government says is mainly for passing tourists and which costs $4 for 20 litres.

The $41 million funding package will be spent on water supply upgrades to connect 350 properties in regional communities including Oodnadatta, which is prioritised as the first to receive treatment infrastructure, as well as Yunta, Maree, Terowie, Marla and Manna Hill.

The upgrades are scheduled to occur over the next four years, with a Government spokesperson telling InDaily residents will be expected to continue to source their own drinking water in the interim period.

The spokesperson said SA Water would now commence work to scope, design, procure and construct the best water infrastructure solutions for each location, with early investigations indicating a reverse osmosis desalination plant might be best suited in Oodnadatta.

A further $7.9 million in State Government funding will be spent on water asset maintenance and replacements in Aboriginal communities across the state.

A corroded tap connected to the Oodnadatta town bore. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

“We went to the election promising better services for South Australians and our investment will see more people across the state have access to a secure supply of drinking water,” Speirs said. 

Oodnadatta’s Dunjiba Community Council chair Maria Stewart said the funding announcement was “a long time coming”.

“We did it,” she said this morning.

“I really fought for Ooodnadatta and I think towns like Yunta and Marla have the same situation with their drinking water.

“I’m glad that we’ve made them listen and I’m glad we have done it because it’s not just Oodnadatta that has no drinking water, we’ve advocated on behalf of other communities too.”

Aboriginal Health Council of SA CEO Shane Mohor said the funding meant there was a future for people in regional communities who currently do not have access to safe drinking water.

He said the water upgrades would have multiple knock-on benefits, including allowing people to live on their country and to grow their own food and business in the community.

“Our communities have been crying out for decades for safe, clean water,” he said.

“Water hasn’t been carted to Oodnadatta in over five years, at the same time as sustained drought has meant that rainwater tanks are becoming dangerously low.

“Our people are in a situation where one authority is telling them not to drink the bore water because it isn’t safe, and to drink rain water instead, whilst another is saying not to drink the rain water because it isn’t safe, and to drink the bore water instead.

“We warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement and applaud the Government for making this announcement.” 

But Mohor expressed concern about a “lack of detail of any transitional measures” to ensure the Oodnadatta community had access to safe drinking water while the infrastructure works progressed.

“We understand that putting in the infrastructure to offer our people long term access to clean, safe water is something that will, of course, take time.

“What we now need from the Government is a plan to offer people access to safe water in the years it will take for these projects to be completed.

“We are calling on the Minister to commit to providing a stop-gap solution to make sure no one else in Oodnadatta gets sick, or fears for their children’s safety because of what comes out of their taps and from their water tanks.”

The funding announcement comes as Essential Services Commission of SA (ESCOSA) released its final determination on SA Water’s 2020-24 regulatory plan.  

The plan prioritised Oodnadatta as the first of 19 South Australian communities without clean drinking water to receive upgraded treatment infrastructure.  

But ECOSA rejected the proposal – estimated to have cost up to $200 million – as a “partial solution that provides limited incremental benefits to a small number of customers at a very high cost” in its draft determination handed down in March.

Speirs also announced today that the State Government would spend $155 million over four years to upgrade and maintain South Australia’s reticulated water mains network.

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