2018 December: Doomadgee (Queensland) – Colour

Concerns over water quality in remote Queensland: ‘This wouldn’t be acceptable in the city’


Concerns over water quality in remote Queensland: ‘This wouldn’t be acceptable in the city’


Ms O’Keefe – who has spent most of her life in Doomadgee – said she shared her concerns on Facebook because she felt that remote communities were being overlooked.

“This wouldn’t be acceptable in the city at all,” she said. “This is 2018 and stuff like this shouldn’t even happen.”

Home to around 2000 people, Doomadgee is the second remote Indigenous community in Queensland to express concerns over water quality in recent weeks, after Palm Island residents reported similar issues in November.

Both communities have naturally high levels of iron and manganese in the raw water supply.

Garry Jeffries, Acting CEO of Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council, said daily testing showed the water was still safe to drink.

“It’s not dirty water – it’s discoloured,” he told NITV News. “The authorities tell us that while it’s not aesthetically very pleasing, it’s not a health risk and we do what we can to control it.”

Mr Jeffries said the council manually treats the raw water supply with three chemicals.

However, any residual chemicals can have a delayed reaction with any residual iron and manganese, which may cause discolouration. He said the issue was harder to manage during the summer months.

“In the last, probably, four weeks we’ve been having extreme temperatures and our water usage has gone up quite dramatically… so the incidence may have been a little bit higher than normal,” he said.

“On top of that, this time of the year – while our raw water storage has never run dry, the levels get low, which means the concentration of the iron and manganese levels is higher than normal, so it creates more effort for us to flush to try and alleviate it.”

Mr Jeffries said the council had received State Government funding to automate the chemical mixing and dosing process, which he hopes will provide a long-term fix by early 2019.

Potable versus palatable

It’s not uncommon for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to have issues with water contamination, says Nina Hall, a researcher at the University of Queensland School of Public Health.

“Not everybody is able to access clean, safe drinking water across Australia, even though it’s 2018 and we’re a wealthy country,” she told NITV News.

“And the places where you’re not assured of a safe glass of water that won’t make you sick short term or long term, tend to be remote areas, and often are remote Indigenous communities.”

Ms Hall said there are generally four reasons water can be unsafe: naturally-occurring chemicals, synthetic chemicals used in agriculture, chemicals such as PFAS used by the defence force and sewerage contamination.

She said there’s a difference between water being potable – safe to drink- and palatable.

So you could have a council saying ‘it’s safe to drink, we’ve done the monitoring, it’s all under the guidelines,'” she said.

“However, it might smell funny, it might be a funny colour, it might tingle on your tongue, in the shower soap won’t lather and you don’t feel clean. So we have to remember why people would drink water, and it’s not just that we feel safe because it’s going to be healthy, we actually have to want to drink that water.

“And that opens up other conversations – if the water is smelling funny and looking funny, will you be reaching for water when you’re thirsty, or will you be looking for other choices? And then we start talking about nutrition with high consumption of soft drinks.”

Ms Hall said there were solutions available, from water filters to chemical and physical treatments: “This is not rocket science. There are answers pretty much to all problems around water contamination and lack of palatability.”

But she argued local councils – particularly small Indigenous councils in Queensland – were often unequipped to deal with water issues.

“They don’t necessarily have the right funding, they don’t have long-term funding,” Ms Hall said.

“They’re very small so they have very few water operators. The water operators can’t take leave easily to go and get further training in the cities. So you have what I would call ‘governance issues’ around managing it.”