“I’m doing this with my heart”: the fight for clean water in a remote Indigenous town in WA | Indigenous Australians


Kaitlyn Buaneye was eight months pregnant when she first learned she wasn’t supposed to drink water, but it wasn’t until after her son was born that she found out why.

Her mother, Patricia Riley, a Nyikina woman and community leader from Pandanus Park, was investigating the contamination of drinking water in the indigenous community in northern Western Australia.

“It was then that my mother discovered that there were nitrates in this water and that it was dangerous. Especially for newborns and pregnant women, ”explains Buaneye.

“I drank it when I was pregnant with my son.

In the six years since that shock, the 25-year-old mother-of-two says it has become difficult to walk 600 meters each day to collect water from the community office’s filtering system, mostly due to heat.

Kaitlyn Buaneye, 25, is a single mother with two children. She has to walk 600m to the community office to get filtered water. Photograph: Isabella Moore / The Guardian

“I think that’s the reason most people give up and drink tap water,” she says.

The community of 125 people 168 km east of Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia draws its drinking water from two boreholes near the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River).

Tests in 2015 revealed nitrate concentrations at levels of 80 mg / L – below the safety guidelines of 100 mg / L recommended for adults by the Australian drinking water guidelines, but above the limit of 50 mg / L for pregnant women and infants up to three months.

a audit report published in June found that groundwater contamination in Pandanus Park and dozens of other isolated communities across the state was worsening.

“Your drinking water could poison your children”

Contamination by nitrates poses a risk to infants because it can cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome”, which prevents the blood from carrying oxygen.

Authorities say current health advice makes water perfectly safe for older children and adults to drink, but Dr Christine Jeffries, a pediatrician working in the Goldfields area of ​​Washington state, says these tips need to be updated.

Jeffries has been studying the health effects of consuming nitrates since realizing the problem while investigating the high rates of kidney disease in remote communities in the region in 2007.

She and her sister-in-law, Annette Stokes, started the western desert kidney health project after noticing 12 children at a basketball game who showed early signs of kidney disease.

At first, they thought the problem was genetic, but they soon found that non-native people who had moved to the same communities had similar problems over time. After ruling out several possibilities, Jeffries says they finally looked at the water and found a recurring feature: nitrate pollution.

18-year-old Chantelle Shovellor with her 10-month-old son Tyzayis at Pandanus Park
Chantelle Shovellor, 18, with her 10 month old son Tyzayis at Pandanus Park. Photograph: Isabella Moore / The Guardian

“The water was a total surprise. It never occurred to us that in Australia your drinking water could poison your children, ”says Jeffries.

Nitrates are produced when organic matter – from vegetation to the human body – breaks down. Often the cause of nitrate pollution is runoff from fertilizers as in the US state of Iowa or sewer leaks, as has been recorded in Gaza.

But in the Kimberley, nitrate pollution occurs naturally. Vegetation, such as at the edge of rivers or streams, dies and the nitrates created infiltrate an aquifer. Because this process can occur over thousands of years, the landscape above can change drastically while the old water below remains.

Adults and older children are believed to have stomach bacteria to break down low nitrate levels, though the National Board of Health and Medical Research is reviewing the nitrates fact sheet in the guidelines on drinking water.

Dr Mary Ward is a Principal Investigator at the National Cancer Institute in the United States and contributes to a 2018 report of the medical literature on nitrates in drinking water.

He found evidence of a relationship between long-term exposure to low levels of nitrate over a period of 10 years and high risks of “colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube defects”.

“While there have been several studies since our 2018 review, our findings still hold true,” Ward said. “Taken together, these studies add to the evidence of adverse health effects related to nitrate at levels below current regulatory standards in the US and EU. “

However, Ward cautions that there are still few well-designed studies available to draw firm conclusions about several risks.

“I am not fighting just for Pandanus”

Professor Anas Ghadouani, program manager for the environmental engineering project at the University of Western Australia, says there are relatively inexpensive measures that could be taken to mitigate possible long-term effects.

Kaitlyn Buaneye says she drank the Pandanus Park water when she was pregnant.
Kaitlyn Buaneye says she drank the Pandanus Park water when she was pregnant. Photograph: Isabella Moore / The Guardian

“Technical solutions already exist,” says Ghadouani. “We can do it now. It is not rocket science. “

Successive state governments have been slow to resolve the issue in Pandanus Park and other communities. In some cases, the cost of providing basic services to remote communities has been used to justify close them.

Ghadouani says reverse osmosis filtration systems for agricultural use cost $ 20,000, less than the cost of kidney dialysis for one patient for a year.

“Expensive is all relative,” says Ghadouani. “When someone says’ dear ‘, I say’ what’s your reference? With a little thought, you could have a really good system.

Professor Stuart Khan, from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of NSW, says cleaning nitrate from water can be tricky, requiring tailor-made systems to prevent wastewater from backing up the water. aquifer and personnel trained to operate them.

“If we had a program that helped transfer these skills to regional and remote communities, that would be ideal,” he says.

In some ways, Pandanus Park is proof that something can be done. Media coverage of the community’s situation prompted a New South Wales-based charity, the Yaru Foundation, to donate a water filtration system in 2018.

What was reported at the time as a “SolutionWas intended only as an interim measure while the state government worked on a lasting and long-term solution.

The filtration system only delivers water to the community office, and Pat Riley says it’s not always possible for the elderly or sick to get there to fetch water every day. days.

“We want clean, pure water that goes right into our homes and that we can drink,” she says.

Paul Isaachsen, deputy director general of governance at the WA Department of Communities, says the needs of Pandanus Park are met by the filtration system and bottled water provided to pregnant women and young children.

He says $ 12 million has been spent to build water treatment plants in other communities.

Kaitlyn buaneye
Kaitlyn Buaneye in Pandanus Park. Photograph: Isabella Moore / The Guardian

Systems have been installed in Jigalong, Mount Margaret, Barrel Well, Jameson, Cosmo Newberry and Tjuntjuntjara, and three more are under construction in Warburton, Kiwirrkurra and Parnngurr.

“Other communities like Pandanus Park need to be considered as funding becomes available,” Isaachsen said.

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However, a recent audit report noted that the ministry can request an exemption to avoid having to provide drinking water to certain communities under its management.

Water Corporation, WA’s water company, has already received exemptions having to provide drinking water to nine remote communities with nitrate contamination problems.

Isaachsen says regulations allowing the ministry to request exemptions are not yet in effect, but it “will consider whether exemptions are necessary” when they are.

Riley says a permanent fix is ​​long overdue.

“They just give us bottled water,” she says.

“They constantly send us bottled water – always bottled water. I do this with my heart, because this is my home. I am not just fighting for Pandanus, I am fighting for the rest of the communities in the Kimberley region.

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