The State Government needs to fix drinking water supply to regional and remote areas.
Water is essential for life and health. It is a basic human right and is essential for social, economic and cultural wellbeing. Yet not all South Australians have reliable access to safe and affordable drinking water. This is particularly an issue for some regional and remote communities. These communities face specific issues and challenges when it comes to the provision of water services, including small economies of scale, poor quality water sources, ageing infrastructure, and high operating costs. Fragmented arrangements for service delivery in remote and regional water services contribute to policy inconsistencies, leaving some under-serviced communities with poor (sometimes unsafe), unreliable and high-cost water services.
"Reforms over the last 20-30 years have improved the security, reliability and relative affordability of water for most South Australians. However the challenges faced by regional and remote communities have not been adequately addressed, and many still do not have secure and reliable access to the most basic of water services."
- Falling through the gaps, AITHER, 2021
Some residential customers who are not part of the SA Water network are paying up to 5 times the price of water compared to SA Water customers. Others are dealing with substandard or unreliable water. The true scope of the problem is an unknown. We need a comprehensive stocktake of water arrangements across the state to identify what is needed where, and the level of funding required to fix the problem and meet this fundamental need.
What SACOSS is calling for
- 5.1 Fix the drinking water supply to regional and remote South Australia.
The State Government must commit to a range of actions to ensure that no South Australian is left behind when it comes to access to safe, affordable drinking water. SACOSS is calling for the State Government to:
- Extend the scope of the planned water security stocktake of self-supplied remote communities to all remote communities, both inside and outside of SA Water’s network
- Develop a policy that outlines a basic level of service that the Government commits to not falling below, and apply it to all remote communities, both inside and outside of SA Water’s network.
- Work with communities to undertake water security planning in regional and remote communities.
- Extend the application of the Community Service Obligations (CSOs) to all residential drinking water service providers.
- Commit to interim measures to deliver clean and safe water to communities in need, until such time as sustainable access to safe water is established.
Other SACOSS water policy proposals:
- 5.2 Regulate for or commit to all Ministerial Directions for SA Water expenditure to be either funded directly from Treasury, or at least included in the regulatory review of SA Water’s expenditure.
Funding the costs of Ministerial Directions through Regulatory Determinations is not in the long-term interests of consumers – it results in costs that are not publicly scrutinised and are hidden in customers’ bills. SA Water’s Regulatory Determination for 2020-2024 included over $461 million in unscrutinised SA Water expenditure directed by the Minister for Environment and Water, which will be recovered from SA Water customers through their water bills in the next four years. Best practice regulation depends on certainty, transparency and community benefit. Consumers should pay no more for water than is allowed by the Essential Services Commission of South Australia, exercising its independent, statutory decision-making powers. Expenditure directed by the Minister should not be recovered from water consumers, but rather should be funded from treasury, or at a minimum, scrutinised by the Commission.
- 5.3 Revise legislation governing water supply charges for renters to align with other states and make landlords responsible for water supply.
Water is an essential service and, as a regressive expenditure, it is a particular impost on the budgets of low-income households. One simple way to reduce this cost for tenants, who tend to have lower incomes, would be to make landlords responsible for water supply charges. In a modern country, a house without water supply is not habitable, so the water supply should be the landlord’s responsibility. This was the case prior to March 2014 when legislation was changed (without much discussion or explanation) to make tenants responsible for the supply charges by default (as well as usage). SA is the only state in Australia where the costs of water supply are charged to the tenant.
In South Australia, there are some under-serviced communities, particularly in regional and remote areas, without reliable access to safe and affordable drinking water.
Fragmented water service arrangements
While SA Water provides drinking water for a large majority of the state, approximately 4000 people are serviced by a mix of local councils, private providers or have developed a self-sufficient supply structure (‘self-supplied communities’). Significantly, this includes Aboriginal people living in remote communities who already have poor health outcomes, exacerbated by a lack of access to safe and secure water.
Statewide pricing excludes small providers
The SA Government’s state-wide pricing policy means that most customers pay the same price per kilolitre of water in all metropolitan and regional areas in the SA Water network. However, while the provision exists for the State Government to extend this policy to small providers, it currently does not – meaning that communities reliant on other providers are often either paying more than the state-wide price for water or are receiving substandard services.
Current state government policy response
The State Government has committed to undertaking a water security audit for ‘self-supplied’ remote communities. This is a welcome starting point to better understand existing water supply arrangements, short and long-term risks, and potential investment options to secure water into the future. However, not all communities are included in this audit and a comprehensive state-wide stocktake of regional and remote communities’ water services is needed to gain a holistic understanding of the state of play, systemic challenges, and the level of investment required to address the issues in a co-ordinated and strategic way.
Recent commitment to a basic service level
SACOSS welcomes the State Government’s commitment to developing a standard for a basic level of safe and reliable drinking water for self-supplied remote communities by 2022, as part of the state’s Implementation Plan for the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. This would enable conversations between communities, government and service providers about how basic water needs can be met under all circumstances (drought and ‘normal’ times). However, such a basic level of service needs to be applied across all regional and remote SA communities, not just those which are self-supplied. Without a statewide approach, there is the risk of further fragmenting decision-making and deepening inequities.
The State Government must commit to interim measures
Upgrading water infrastructure, and the associated planning, takes time. The State Government needs to commit to interim measures to deliver clean and safe water to communities in need (e.g. subsidising bottled water, water carting, and other non-network solutions). This will ensure that no further negative health impacts occur from poor quality water.
Policy briefs and submissions:
- 5.1 Policy Brief: Safe, reliable water for all South Australians
- 5.2 Policy Brief: Ministerial Directions
- Joint Submission: Draft Water Security Statement
- Submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry
- Media Release: Productivity Commission report supports calls for a basic level of water services for all South Australians (Sept 2021)
- Media Release: United call for strong action on drinking water in regional and remote SA (June 2021)
- Media Release: New report highlights gaps and question marks over water supply & safety in regional and rural SA (May 2021)
- Media Release: SA Fails on water fundamentals (March 2021)