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Northern Territory Drinking Water Report 2003-2022

Friends of the Earth started an ambitious project in January 2023 with an idea to determine which communities in Australia suffer from the poorest drinking water quality. The first focus of this research has been the Northern Territory.

A new report published on April 4 2023, compiles water quality data collated by Power and Water Corporation in the Northern Territory over the past 20 years.

The small Northern Territory community of Wilora has had to contend with uranium above the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines for many years and sodium at levels between 14-16 times the "unofficial" sodium guideline of 20mg/L for at least 15 years. These chronic drinking water issues should not be occurring in Australia in this day and age. The Albanese Government recently announced that $150 million will target communities with poor drinking water quality. However Water Services Australia estimate that $2.2 billion is required so that remote communities can have access to safe drinking water. When the $150 is spent which communities will continue to miss out?

One reason to look at water quality issues around the country was to reconcile a lot of the data that has accumulated on the Australian Drinking Water Map and to place key data from the map into one summary report. The Australian Drinking Water map was created in 2018 as a means of gaining insight into drinking water issues across Australia. It has slowly accumulated information from around the country. 

10 communities around the Territory have been drinking water above Australian Guideline levels for the past 15 years. Of these the small community of Gudabijin/Bulla, in the Territory's north west fared worse, with chronic drinking water averaging about 3 times the Australian Drinking Water Guideline level. The substance of most concern at Gudabijin is Barium. High levels of barium can cause changes in heart rhythm or paralysis in humans. Short period exposure may experience vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, difficulties in breathing, increased or decreased blood pressure, numbness around the face, and muscle weakness.

FoE estimates that approximately 6000 people in the Territory will be drinking water above guideline levels for significant periods of time. The main substances causing problems for communities in the Northern Territory include: Fluoride, Uranium and Selenium, Lead, Radioactivity, Barium, Antimony and Arsenic.

The problem of drinking water quality become even more problematic if one looks at the underappreciated problems concerning sodium. Sodium is generally regarded by water authorities as being an aesthetic issue, rather than a health issue. The aesthetic guideline for sodium under the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines is set at 180mg/L. However for people with cardiovascular problems (eg severe hypertension or congestive heart failure) the ADWG recommend a guideline of 20mg/L.

After assessing the Power and Water data, there would be around 51,000 people in the Northern Territory drinking water above 20mg/L, with the largest population at Alice Springs. The small community of Wilora recorded sodium levels at between 14-16 times the 20mg/L level for 15 years. Sodium has also been linked to kidney disease.

The highest rates of cardiovascular disease in Australia are in the Northern Territory including the highest rate of hospitalisations. Indigenous Australians suffering cardiovascular disease death were at 1.5 times the rate of non-indigenous Australians (2.3 times the rate in remote areas). The death rate due to kidney disease for indigenous Australians was highest in the Northern Territory as were hospitalisations. Kidney disease can also contribute to deaths from other diseases (including diabetes and circulatory disease).

Read the latest findings & detailed report below by by Anthony Amis, Land Use Researcher of Friends of the Earth Australia:

Communities in the Northern Territory that recorded sodium at levels higher than 20mg/L

URL for report:

If you would like to support our research into other states, please donate to Friends of the Earth and mention that the donation is for water and toxics work.

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