NACCHO Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Health News: Safe water for remote NT mob finally possible

feature tile, Yuedumu outdoor tap in poor condition; text 'Funding may finally give Yuendemu and Milingimbi communities access to clean, reliable water'

The image in the feature tile is from an article Yuendumu in Central Australia at ‘severe risk’ of running out of water published by ABC News on 13 August 2019. Photo: Katrina Beavan, ABC News.

The NACCHO Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health News is platform we use to showcase the important work being done in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, focusing on the work of NACCHO, NACCHO members and NACCHO affiliates.

We also share a curated selection of news stories that are of likely interest to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector, broadly.

Safe water for remote NT mob finally possible

Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Taya Plibersek MP along with her NT counterpart have announced that the Federal and NT Labor Governments are investing in two projects to give First Nations communities access to clean, reliable water. “Most Australians would be shocked to learn that tens of thousands of First Nations people in remote communities still don’t have access to healthy drinking water. It harms people economically, because towns and families can’t get ahead if they can’t rely on the basics of life, and culturally it causes harm for people to see their river and waterways run dry.

“That is why the Federal Government is investing $17.5m with $9.1m from the NT in two new projects to start to fix this problem as part of the Albanese Government’s $150m fund to close the gap on First Nations water security. In Yuendemu we’re together investing $15.3m for three critical construction projects in the Central Desert community. The project includes a water service line replacement, equipping of two existing bores and a rising main replacement which will prevent leakage and provide increased water transfer capacity that can support new housing development. In Milingimbi we’re together investing $11.4m for three critical construction projects to improve access and reliability of water supply in the East Arnhem Land. Across three locations, the project includes upgrading and new bores which will improve access and reliability of Milingimbi’s water supply, unlock the opportunity for new housing development to reduce overcrowding and enable community development.

“Construction will commence in the 2023 NT dry season and will be delivered closely with the Yuendumu and Milingimbi communities to ensure their views and priorities for their own communities are heard. But these two projects are just the start. The Albanese Labor Government is investing $150m in projects like this right around Australia – to make sure communities have access to clean water. These are the first construction activities under this fund, and a clear demonstration of this government‘s efforts to Close the Gap on essential services and water infrastructure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

To view the joint media release Delivering water to remote Northern Territory First Nations communities by the Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP and the NT Minister for Environment, Climate change and Water Security, the Hon Lauren Moss MLA in full click here. You can also access a related ABC News article NT government’s first water plan to focus on safe drinking water for remote communities here.

4 Aboriginal women from Laramba community NT holding a glass of water

In April the Laramba community celebrated the opening of a water treatment plant for the town, after years of lobbying. Photo: Charmayne Allison, ABC Alice Springs.

SEWB gathering focused on Culture First

Participants at last week’s fourth Social and Emotional Wellbeing Gathering (SEWB 4) in Larrakia Country (Darwin), focused on the importance of ‘Culture First’ and particularly its importance to healing. Speakers included Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney and some of Australia’s leading human rights advocates such as Professor Tom Calma and Thomas Mayo. The University of WA’s Professor Helen Milroy, psychiatrist, and Professor Pat Dudgeon, psychologist, were also key speakers. In her opening address, Minister Burney stressed the historic and important opportunities for shared decision making, and for establishing a voice and meaningful representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. Participants from government, non-government organisations, academia, and consumer advocates shared their perspectives on culture and what it meant to them, including tradition, ancestors, language, dance, food and connection to Country.

Feedback also mentioned that culture was diverse and that while cultural problems required cultural solutions, there was no ‘one size fits all’. “Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing are often not recognised, and for First Nations workers lived experience and deep cultural and community knowledge are marginalised,” one respondent said. Participants shared that formal qualifications weren’t the only things that counted towards best practice in supporting communities, and that across organisations, culture needed to be a foundation that created culturally safe and responsive workplaces and practices.

Collectively, the long-term benefits of a successful referendum of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament were seen as moving towards closing the gap and better outcomes for First Nations people and communities; an opportunity to be recognised, to have a say, and to be heard. It would also lead to accountability of governments and better, more informed decision making but most importantly it would enable healing for elders, and for the younger generation to be empowered to lead the way forward. The event was co-hosted by Transforming Indigenous Mental Health & Wellbeing, The University of WA, NACCHO, Gayaa Dhuwi, and The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA).

To view the University of WA article Social and Emotional Wellbeing gathering focused on Culture First in full click here.

Uni WA Professor Pat Dugeon keynote speaker SEWB Gathering 4 - 31.7.23

UWA’s Professor Pat Dugeon was a keynote speaker at the SEWB Gathering #4. Image source: UWA website.

Strengthening communities for future generations

Community organisations in remote Indigenous communities have a vital role in addressing the cultural determinants of health, as well as housing insecurity and other social determinants of health. Community, culture, research and family are core to the work of Yalu Aboriginal Corporation – a grassroots Yolngu organisation in the community of Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land. Helen Westbury, the Executive Manager of Yalu and a Palawa woman said “the child is at the centre of everything they [Yalu Aboriginal Corporation] do – ‘Yalu means nurturing’.”

This is evident in Yalu’s work with families who are at risk, supporting them into a better position so children can remain in community and with their families. Community organisations like Yalu offer much more than just service delivery – they are trusted, holistic and empowering in addressing social determinants of health, including housing insecurity and homelessness. Yalu “has become a centre point for a lot of family members and community members, where they come to us for all sorts of support, not only for the programs that we are funded to deliver, but also many other things,” CEO Anahita Tonkin said.

On 2021 Census night, NT had the highest rate of homelessness in Australia – twelve times the national average. Reasons for the high rates of housing insecurity and homelessness in the NT are complex and longstanding. Skye Thompson, CEO of Aboriginal Housing Northern Territory (AHNT) says that many of the issues AHNT deal with are results of the NT Intervention that disempowered local organisations and people, and their capacity. Tonkin and Westbury say “homelessness in remote communities is different to what you see in other communities and cities – it is not just sleeping rough, but also homelessness due to living in severely crowded houses. 15–20 people may live in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom.” Public housing stock has also become substantially less available in recent years. Up to 5,800 families in the NT are on the waitlist for public housing. “We absolutely have a crisis in the NT,” says Peter McMillan, CEO of NT Shelter.

To view the Croakey Health Media article Nurturing and strengthening communities for future generations in full click here.

Yalu Aboriginal Corporation team, Yolngu organisation, Galiwin'ku on Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land

Yalu Aboriginal Corporation team. Image source: Croakey Health Media.

Remarkable COVID-19 outcome for remote population

The Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care (DHAC) recently released a report Communicable Diseases Intelligence A low burden of severe illness: the COVID-19 Omicron outbreak in the remote Torres and Cape region of Far North Queensland. The report says the COVID-19 Omicron outbreak in the Torres and Cape region resulted in a far lower burden of severe illness than originally anticipated, with the overall and First Nations case fatality and ICU admission rates similar to those reported nationally for the Omicron wave and that this was a remarkable outcome for a remote population with limited access to health services and at increased risk of severe disease. Local councils worked closely with Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service (TCHHS) during both the preparation and responses stages of the outbreak, and the COVID-19 outreach vaccination program was strongly supported by community leaders.

While vaccination coverage rates were somewhat lower than those reported across the general Australian population, the outreach vaccination program led to similar double dose vaccination rates among First Nations and non-Indigenous residents at the start of the outbreak and the rate among First Nations residents exceeded that of non-Indigenous residents by the end of the outbreak period. This reflected local leadership in advocating for vaccination and ongoing community engagement across remote communities prior to and throughout the outbreak period and contrasted other parts of Australia where vaccination rates among First Nations people were lower than those of non-Indigenous people.

The Torres and Cape region’s experience aligns with reports from parts of Australia early in the pandemic, where both low case numbers and low rates of severe illness among First Nations people were attributed to outstanding Indigenous leadership. In addition to Omicron variant’s milder phenotype and vaccination coverage, we also credit the low burden of severe illness in the TCHHS region to community leadership in promoting vaccination, to councils’ facilitation of localised outbreak messaging, to community engagement in testing and isolation, to the establishment of a local public health team and to widespread participation in a culturally considered care-in-the-home program. The report concludes that the low burden of severe illness can be attributed to local community leadership, community engagement, vaccination coverage and recency, and community participation in a local culturally considered COVID-19 care-in-the-home program.

To view the DHAC’s report in full click here.

Floralita Billy-Whap, Poruma Is, Torres Strait, gets COVID-19 vax

Floralita Billy-Whap gets vaccinated on the island of Poruma in the Torres Strait. Photo supplied by: Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service. Image source: ABC News.

Lack of access exacerbates youth mental health

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15–44, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported in 2022, with an alarming rate in Indigenous communities. Australia Bureau of Statistics data show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are twice as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous individuals. Zero2Hero projects manager Gemma West said “We’ve found this crisis is particularly evident while we’ve been on the road in remote areas of WA, where we have observed complex and intergenerational challenges concerning youth mental health. Historical events have inflicted grief and trauma on Indigenous communities, disrupting the transmission of cultural knowledge, stories and identity to young people.”

The high rate of hospitalisations for suicide and self-harm underscores the lack of sustainable mental health resources available for young people in these regions of WA. According to Ms West “The absence of proper mental health education in regional areas leaves vulnerable young minds ill-equipped to understand and cope with emotional struggles. Without essential mental health education and support, their resilience remains low, perpetuating the critical issue of youth suicide. The remoteness of communities in the North West exacerbates the problem by limiting access to critical support services. Addressing this crisis demands a collaborative effort to provide support, education, and proper infrastructure for youth mental health in remote Indigenous regions, offering a lifeline to those struggling and reducing the prevalence of youth suicide.”

Ms West said “Zero2Hero’s goal is to provide every young West Australian with access to good mental health education through school programs, regardless of their location or remoteness. In 2022, zero2hero reached more than 28,000 young people living in the Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Pilbara, Kimberley, South West, Great Southern, Mid West, Gascoyne, and metro regions. Those with capacity in metro areas need to step up and start having more of an on-the-ground footprint in remote areas. Handing out flyers and expecting a young person to be able to navigate everything on their own isn’t enough. There needs to be more in-person work being done.”

To view the Business News article Lack of access exacerbates Indigenous youth mental health in full click here.

2 male teenagers, one ATSI, Zero2Hero Camp Hero participants

Participants of the Camp Hero Youth program run by Zero2Hero. Image source: Zero2Hero website.

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Key Date – International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – 9 August 2023

On 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples would be observed on 9 August every year. The date marks the first meeting, in 1982, of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. This year’s theme is: Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change for Self-determination.

The right of peoples to self-determination occupies an important place in international human rights law, and is recognised as a fundamental right in major human rights instruments (covenants), including the United Nations Charter. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination (Art. 3) and in exercising this right, they have the right to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Self-determination is fundamental and must be taken together with Articles 1 and 2 of the UN Declaration because Indigenous Peoples are subject to international human rights law and as Peoples are equal to all other Peoples. These three articles of the UN Declaration confirm that Indigenous Peoples, including children and youth, have the right to make their own decisions and carry them out meaningfully and culturally appropriate to them. In other words, Indigenous Peoples have an equal right to govern themselves, equal to all other Peoples. Indigenous youth are playing an active role in exercising their right to self-determination, as their future depends on the decisions that are made today. For instance, Indigenous youth are working as agents of change at the forefront of some of the most pressing crises facing humanity today.

Since colonisation, Indigenous youth have been faced with ever-changing environments not only culturally in modern societies, but in the traditional context as well. While living in two worlds is becoming harder as the world changes, Indigenous youth are harnessing cutting-edge technologies and developing new skills to offer solutions and contribute to a more sustainable, peaceful future for our people and planet. Their representation and participation in global efforts towards climate change mitigation, peacebuilding and digital cooperation are crucial for the effective implementation of the right of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination, and to their enjoyment of collective and individual human rights, the promotion of peaceful co-existence, and ensuring equality of all.

For more information about International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples you can visit the United Nations website here.

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