Fellowship winner shines light on safe water for remote communities

An Australian water engineer will study sustainable water management in remote Indigenous communities after winning a prestigious research fellowship announced during National Water Week.

The inaugural Chris Davis AM Fellowship – backed by peak water body the Australian Water Association (AWA) – will support Alice Springs-based water consultant Catherine Vero to investigate water quality in remote community towns.

There are some 1200 such First Nations homelands across Australia, all with populations of between 10 and 100, living in conditions many judge to be very poor.

“I’ve seen water quality issues that would make city folks’ hair stand on end in alarm,” Vero says in an interview with AWA.

“I know a lot about supporting small communities to have safe water but there is always more to know.

“I thought the fellowship would be a good prompt to … research in a particular area, to improve my knowledge and come back and share my findings with others.”

Groundwater: safe water that must be protected

Countless reports have shown water on many remote communities to be undrinkable, a situation expected to worsen under climate change unless action is taken.

The beginnings of such action came mid-year, when federal and Territory governments announced 2 projects to give First Nations communities access to clean, reliable water, at Yuendumu in central Australia and at Milingimbi in East Arnhem Land.

Many more remote communities remain in need.

A 2022 research paper found drinking water supplied in 2018-19 to 25,000 people in 99 small communities didn’t pass Australian guidelines.

Vero graduated with a chemical engineering degree in 2002 and secured her first job west of Sydney “running membrane pilot plants for water and wastewater”, which cemented her interest in the water field.

She now works as a consultant on remote area water treatment and biosolids in bigger centres.

For the fellowship, Vero aims to select homelands with a good level of support and that are already successfully running water systems, and interview them.

“I want to draw together the common threads of what happens when things are working well.”

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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