How do we ensure all Australians have access to high-quality drinking water?

A recent Productivity Commission report has called on Australian governments to ensure universal access to safe and reliable drinking water, emphasizing its critical role in public health.

The report, titled “National Water Reform 2024,” was commissioned by the federal government and stresses the need for comprehensive reforms in water management to safeguard the well-being of communities, the environment, and the economy.

Australia has followed the National Water Initiative (NWI) since 2004, a strategy developed in collaboration with state and territory governments. While the NWI has been effective over the past two decades, the report indicates that increasing and changing water demand, coupled with the impacts of climate change on rainfall, present new challenges.

Updating the National Water Initiative is crucial for addressing these emerging issues. The report advocates for water service provision that is “effective, equitable, and efficient,” highlighting the need for all governments to guarantee universal access to safe and reliable drinking water.

Addressing Disparities in Water Quality

Although most Australians enjoy high-quality drinking water, some communities, particularly small and remote ones with significant Indigenous populations, face poor water quality. A review in December 2023 identified contaminants as a major concern in these areas.

High levels of contaminants, such as excessive hardness, turbidity, fluoride, iron, and manganese, exceed the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines in communities with limited treatment facilities. Additionally, poorly maintained bores and groundwater systems often suffer from runoff pollution, posing risks of bacterial and pathogen infections that can lead to gastrointestinal diseases.

The inadequate water quality and quantity in these remote communities significantly impact health, often causing residents to choose sugary beverages over poor-tasting or unappealing water.

Water Safety in Larger Communities

In contrast, larger Australian towns and cities generally maintain high water quality. However, safety is not solely determined by historical quality but also by the potential for future incidents. Effective water safety requires stringent management of drinking water catchments, multiple independent water treatment processes, comprehensive monitoring, and robust incident response procedures.

Waterborne disease outbreaks in other developed countries, such as New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Norway, highlight the importance of preventive measures and the risks associated with human error and inadequate training.

Financial Considerations for Safe Water Supply

Affordability is a key factor in ensuring universal access to safe drinking water. Technical solutions to water quality problems exist, but their implementation requires funding. The concept of “postage stamp pricing,” where all customers pay the same rates regardless of service costs, helps mitigate affordability issues but is limited in regions where local councils provide water.

Institutional Reforms for Sustainable Water Management

The report underscores the need for institutional reforms to separate policy setting, service delivery, and regulation, each with distinct roles. Water service providers should be incentivized to operate efficiently, innovatively, and cost-effectively.

For long-term success, Australian governments must adopt processes that ensure water infrastructure developments and refurbishments are ecologically sustainable, economically viable, and culturally responsive. Neglecting these broader impacts could undermine improvements in drinking water quality and safety, leading to short-lived benefits and high costs.