A small Northern Territory community is entering its' fifth week of rations as authorities argue over responsibility for a contaminated water supply.
Garawa's water supply was contaminated with lead last month, suspected to be coming from old sealants in the pipe network. Home to more than 200 men, women and children, the community is asking how long the supply was contaminated and when they will have access to clean water again.
Lead travels through the bloodstream, affecting the nervous system and causing a variety of illnesses from insomnia, memory loss, cognitive deficits, blindness to reproductive issues.
Jason de Santolo (Garawa and Barunggam), a core member of SIC - Strengthening Indigenous Communities, said no blood tests had been done and there was no information regarding how long the NT Government had known about the elevated lead.
“There is poor communication. It’s a health crisis, there is no support, no one came to the door, just a letter and no serious explanation,” Mr de Santolo said.
Reports indicated that the two town camps contained 11ug/L of lead and 650ug/L of manganese, both above the Australian Drinking Water guidelines. However, initial test results, which were not made public, show the water contained 15ug/L of lead and 850ug/L of manganese. Five weeks on, and Garawa Camp Two is still above the maximum range.
On May 10, NT Minister for Health Natasha Fyles told Yingiya Guyula Mla, Independent senator for Nhulunbuy, that a Centre for Disease Control physician had visited the town’s residents. However, individuals had to pay for consultations.
“The community, they're all upset. We don't trust anyone at the clinic to do the testing. We want to get an independent person to do the testing, and that way we can find out the truth,” according to Garawa and Yanyuwa man Gadrian Hoosan.
Garawa One and Two, located 1056 km southeast of Darwin and 70 km north of the McArthur River mine, are not the only communities dealing with water issues. Bulla, in the Katherine region, has an average of 6.9 mg/L Barium, almost three times the ADW guideline, and Willowra and Laramba have double the safe amount of uranium, 25 μg/L and 27 μg/L, respectively.
“It's endemic across the Northern Territory, since the NT Intervention authorities have been shifting the responsibility into an unknown space,” Mr de Santolo.
A spokesperson for Power and Water (PWC) said infrastructure was the responsibility of the town’s owners, while the Roper Gulf Regional Council, which oversees the Borroloola area, says it’s a matter for the NT Government. However, a spokesperson for the NT Department of Health and Housing said town camps and communities are technically two different things, and camps are not the government's responsibility.
While PWC has now isolated a section of pipe for testing the question remains, how long has the community been consuming contaminated water and who is accountable?
...they’re saying you guys have to sign a lease for a problem [they] created, it’s outrageous, immoral conduct”
“It's just about access to clean water. We have a right to clean drinking water and to adequate shelter and housing. These are two basic citizenship rights, and we should have that right without having to give our land away. It’s simple, clean water and that applies across Australia,” Mr de Santolo said.
On April 23, four days after the initial contamination notice, the Northern Land Council met with the Garrwa community regarding new mining leases over the Nawimbi Land Trust and the community rejected the proposal.
Three days later, Senator Nigel Scullion, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, arrived in Garawa to further negotiate the lease agreements over camps One and Two. New housing was offered in exchange for leases over the community, but no further compensation was offered should mines begin operating in the area. The community rejected the lease a second time.
Mr Hoosan said the main priority was the water.
“No one is talking about our water, they were talking about leasing and putting a government house here, and nothing was mentioned about our water.”
“I'm here, fighting for my water. [They] need to listen to us, about our water. We're not going to sign any agreement for leasing in this community until our water gets fixed.”
Garawa country runs from the east of the Wearyan River, the Foelsche, Robinson, Calvert Rivers, reaching just across the Queensland border. The camps derive their names from the community that lives on the land.
Garawa history, knowledge and culture is based around the river systems that supply the area, but continued economic pressure and a lack of accountability by authorities has undermined the community’s right to self-determination and adequate housing.
“It’s a policy that targets Aboriginal land, land rights, women and children. It should be unfettered to have a healthy life in Australia, we shouldn’t have to move off our country, or share mining rights, but we’re being pushed to that. It’s a moral act, they’re saying you guys have to sign a lease for a problem [they] created, it’s outrageous, immoral conduct,” Mr de Santolo said.