Three Months Without Water Means Health Crisis Growing In Utopia Community


An Aboriginal health service relied upon by 800 of the most disadvantaged citizens in the country will be forced to fundraise $35,000 for a new bore after their own water source was cut off for almost three months. 

While most Australians enjoy unbroken access to safe and clean drinking water, the Urapuntja Health Service, which services 16 outstations in the Utopia region of Central Australia, has been relying on water trucked in from Tennant Creek.

The community’s 20-year-old bore, which also provides water to the local Utopia Homelands primary school and 14 residences, collapsed during maintenance and repairs by the Barkley Shire Council. But 12 weeks later, there has been no word on when it will be fixed.

The health service has only met with the Barkly Shire twice in those three months, and only twice with the NT Department of Community Services, the CEO of the health service Linda Keating told New Matilda.

As the summer heat approaches, the situation is getting even more worrying, and the health service and members of the community of Amengernterneh are looking at other options – including fundraising for the bore themselves.

A new bore would cost about $35,000.

“The Barkley Shire and the NT government’s Department of Community Services are responsible for this, but we are still no closer to a solution. I haven’t heard from them in well over a week,” Ms Keating told New Matilda.

“We’re getting worried because coming into summer, it’s already quite hot out here. The water needs are going to really increase, and we’re worried about that. We’re talking about raising our own funds.

“It’s just an awful situation. It’s just really disappointing.”

While the water has been trucked in more reliably after the health service first went to the media a couple of months ago, Urapuntja has been forced to prioritise water needs in order to keep running.

Ms Keating says that in addition to running the health service, there are also washing machines and showers available to residents, who do not have similar facilities in their outstations.

Because of the water shortages, those services have been cut off, posing a dire health threat to Aboriginal people who cannot access the facilities.

“Utopia is unique in that it’s made up of a lot of outstations and communities, and the health service services 16… a couple will have a washing machine, but a lot don’t. The directors had to make a decision to close the facility because there’s just not enough water,” Ms Keating said.

“… We’re really having to save water. It’s crazy.”

It means many Aboriginal people have been forced to go 12 weeks without washing their clothes. There are concerns this had lead directly to an outbreak of scabies.

Lack of water also impacts heavily on conditions like trachoma, and can worsen problems like rheumatic heart disease, a deadly condition.

Ms Keating says she doesn’t think it is cost effective to continue trucking water in. There are limited holding facilities in the community of Amengernterneh where Urapuntja is based.

There are only 25 permanent residences in the Amengernterneh community, but almost 800 residents rely on the health service from across the region, so the water shortages affect them to, Ms Keating says.

It also affects the health professionals who enter the community. There is a mobile dialysis team currently based in Utopia.

“We also have the trachoma team out here, the hearing health team. We have to have those services because they are a necessity to the community.”

Barkley Regional Shire did not return calls at the time of press. But two weeks ago, the CEO Olivia Marks told the NT News the shire had been working with the Department of Communities in addressing the problem.

New Matilda also was unsuccessful in contacting the NT Minister for Community Services Bess Price.

Ms Price’s office was the subject of a protest in Alice Springs yesterday after her department turned off water to the Whitegate town camp in Alice Springs, a community situated just a

Whitegate remains the only one of 17 town camps in Alice Springs not serviced by government, because the community does not have a ‘special purpose lease’ over the lands (the other 16 town camps do).

Water has been supplied by the Tangentyere Council – the peak body for town campers – for decades, despite Tangentyere receiving no government funding for the Whitegate community.

The Lhere Artpe Aboriginal Corporation – the native title representative body for Alice Springs – has recently agreed to supply water for the next 12 months, but troubling questions still exist about whether government will address the critical lack of infrastructure in the town camp, where some of the key residents are traditional owners of the area.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.