Some Types of Persisting Problems
Some problems have persisted for several decades, despite being widely known about, well described, written and complained about, and solutions proffered.
Insufficient housing for community populations is a major problem. Whole families living in each bedroom of a house is not unheard of. This overcrowding has led to many problems including health and abuse. Policies of pulling down old houses before replacements can be built should not exist, but a house repair and maintenance program installed in its place.
The major issue with tropical living is dealing with heat. Days can easily reach 40 degrees in the shade, and nights can remain above 30 degrees, making living and sleeping uncomfortable. Air conditioning is an impractical impossibility, as local diesel powered generation is inadequate and would be prohibitively expensive. Despite about 20 years of attempted negotiated improvements, housing has remained a long troubled issue. Houses more suited to temperate climates are still being built in remote tropical communities, poorly insulated, barely ventilated, wrongly sited for the sun, little built-in shade, etc. Living in such housing can be stifling.
One desert community engaged, under tender, a southern city based architect, who produced drawings for conventionally styled concrete-block houses, more suited for southern climes, and devoid of insulation, ceiling ventilation, etc. The layout was not designed for the community, and when built with the showcase façade facing the road, the bedrooms were facing west to collect the afternoon sun, with the effect of superheating the bedrooms for most of the night, making sleep uncomfortable and difficult, and waking life debilitating.
Water and Waste Disposal
The major issues with arid desert living is dealing with an adequate supply of good water, successful waste disposal and providing vegetation. Many communities have been constructed with little thought given to principles of conservation. Much tropical and arid desert housing is more appropriate to temperate climes, and not sited for optimum sun/shade, etc. Water conservation has rarely been a consideration.
One desert community with chronic water shortages had 5 water bores pumping continuously to supply water to a flush-toilet>septic tank>absorption trench system, which failed because of inadequate desert soil porosity, which caused permanently saturated trenches. It was subsequently upgraded to become a reticulated flush-toilet>septic-tank>pump station>evaporation pond system. Many faulty toilets ran continuously and throughput of water was so excessive that the pond was permanently about 1 metre deep and located dangerously close to the bore field. There was never enough water for backyard gardens, lawns or for the football field, and as the water table continued to drop, the water became more saline, and renal failure, which was already common, increased.
This example shows how one improperly designed component can compromise many areas of community life, affecting the overall working of the whole. A partial solution was achieved by installing a number of waterless VIP community toilets, to minimise water used by the flush toilet system.
Today, on remote communities with water scarcity, taps can be dripping through water valve wear, which can be high with unfiltered bore water.
The Telstra problems in the bush can only be described as extreme on many remote communities, including difficulties of internet access. Imagine a whole settlement without internet access. Many communities have telephone systems that are continually breaking down.
Some communities are located several hundred kilometres down rough, dirt roads that can be impassable anytime it rains. The cost of fuel and wear and tear on vehicles is enormous, and repairs are difficult. The best solution to this is to minimise the need for travel, through producing more things on the community and not needing to go off base so often.
Forcing the Land to Bear an Income
Vegetation is another big loser in arid desert regions. Much desertification has been caused by the attempt to run cattle as a commercial operation on land that will not handle that degree of intense exploitation. The usual outcome is a loss making venture and permanent bare ground though out the community and beyond, often reaching to the horizon. This causes not only a dustbowl, whipped up by winds and traffic, but also increases the amount of salt finding its way to the surface.
Some NT remote communities were convinced to undertake cattle operations in sparsely vegetated areas, in localities around where mainstream farmers had previously already failed to turn a profit. In many, they were likewise economically unsuccessful, after wasting much time, effort and funding, in an exercise that was always doomed.
One WA desert community had run cattle at a loss for years, and after they closed down the operation, the permanent dustbowl greened up with shrubs and ground covers, out to the horizon in every direction. They considered themselves far better off, and could return to a level of roo hunting and bush tucker.
Community stores are of vital importance to the wellbeing of community members. Provisions otherwise must be obtained from great distances, often hundreds of kilometres away. This makes the community members a captive clientele, and as such has often enough been used to not engage best practice, provide an inadequate service and exploit the consumer. Various arrangements have been tried, community owned and run, community owned and leased, etc.
One store was run by a community service organisation, which charged exorbitant prices for their goods, in order to fund the service organisation, some 600 klms away. The food section was stocked at around 90-95% junk and lower grade food, and 5-10% reasonable food that the professional staff quickly purchased, effectively condemning the Aboriginal population to a denourished diet and poor health. When questioned as to why the store did not provide more decent food, he stated that he can get a good feed out of the store, and the people must be given freedom of choice.
The community had in excess of 20% of their infants catagorized as “failing to thrive”, being in the bottom the bottom 3% of the general population of young children in height/weight ration, and is a sign of severe malnourishment. It was found that most of these babies were quite healthy for the first few months whilst on the breast, only to later decline. Investigations revealed a pattern amongst the nursing mothers, who would begin their infants on a diet of Cheezels, as soon as they were able to digest any solid food, not knowing that they are nutritionless and spiked with MSG. The nursing staff saw no need to educate the mothers about the dangers of highly processed ‘foods’.
A survey of fringe dwellers from this same community, who had camped on the outskirts of the nearest mining town, revealed that their infants’ health was better than those infants in the community. This was an unexpected finding, and it was concluded that the takeaway fast foods that these parents practically lived on were nutritionally better for the infants and mothers to be fed on than the packaged junk from the community store.
Several adults on the community were existing on a diet almost exclusively of white flour damper, which has virtually all nutritional properties removed. Every adult in the community was on at least two forms of prescribed daily medicine for chronic diseases including obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure, weak heart, strokes, diabetes etc. These problems are now recognised as dietary related.
The forming of service organisations to assist CDEPs has a history of notable successes and failures. Ngattatjarra Services was a huge success. Originally set up in Alice Springs to provide administration services to desert communities in WA, close to the NT border, it now successfully services many NT organisations as well. It now also owns and runs an airline that is linked to other associate airlines to provide a comprehensive service to numerous desert communities for passengers, mail and freight. It also owns and operates a major bulk-purchasing company in Perth, and distributes food and freight orders in semi-trailers to communities. In addition, Ngattatjarra Services manages medical services to the Western Desert communities, and provides competent accounting and bookkeeping services. On the other hand, failures have been dramatic:
One service organisation was set up to assist development of infrastructure for a group of desert communities, including servicing desert wells. It owned and operated the only store that these desert communities could purchase from, and charged exorbitant prices to assist funding itself. After breaking down in the desert, hundreds of klms from anywhere, a number of Aboriginals walked past wells which had broken, un-serviced hand pumps, that was the responsibility of the service organisation, and died from dehydration.
One service organisation had been funded around $250,000 per year to provide a bookkeeping service to needy Aboriginal organisations, but had failed to provide the service for a number of years, spending its entire budget running its own office. The service organisation itself fell into breach after the auditor was unable to a audit of its books because of such confused records. Many of its clientele organisations fell into breach and were placed under grant control, at their own, additional expense.
One service organisation was created to service the CDEP needs of numerous remote communities and outstations, hundred of kilometres from where it was stationed. The service organisation had no employees with administrative experience, and was unable to service a great number of its communities and outstations, resulting in many becoming seriously run down. This resulted in approximately half of the communities and outstations being removed from that organisations oversight, and necessitating a second service organisation to be created to do this work, and costing the region much valued funds that would have gone to those deprived communities.
The practice of engaging consultants has not always been as empowering of the organisation as hoped. Some have kept themselves in long periods of employment through the deliberate use of particularly difficult and unfriendly accounting programs that required regular maintenance and annual updating. Such circumstances can also leave the way open for manipulation of figures and even misappropriation of funds, if the organisation cannot themselves keep track of expenditure.
One consultant used a particularly unfriendly program that required budget items be recorded as six digit numbers, that were listed in a random order not corresponding to order of lines in the budget. Erroneous postings were numerous and could not be undone, but were eventually corrected by the consultant on his periodic visit, through transference via a suspension account.
Confusion was always high, and at no time did the CDEP ever know its current expenditure levels to compare with the budget, and could only find these out retrospectively, well after purchases had already been made. Budget lines were prone to blowing out, and planning was impossible to conform to. The organisation found that keeping accounts was an unpleasant and unrewarding task.
Staff turnover to this position was high, and difficult to replace, with each change requiring more tutoring by the consultant. The consultant’s bill each year was about equivalent to engaging a full time accountant. On one occasion, the Auditor required a complete re-entering of all cheques, for clarity, which was charged to the community.
One accountant also offered services as a management consultant and screened all administrative/coordinator applicants and selected only bookkeeping-illiterate persons to be short listed, thereby ensuring their own permanent future engagement as accountant and consultant, all without community oversight, and was able to issue spurious invoices to the communities for work never done. This particular company has applied this model to numerous remote communities, ensuring monopolised control of many communities’ finances.
Attending service providers have never developed an understanding of either sustainable solutions or community living, and in effect, they hold Aboriginal communities in unsustainable non-solutions, when every aspect of the situation is in need of and calling out for genuine sustainable community solutions. It is in the disconnect, the hiatus or gap, between imposed, unsustainable, non-community fixes, and the need for wholistic, life-affirming, sustainable community solutions, that remote Aboriginal communities decline. This will continue until that gap is bridged. It will never be bridged by forcing mainstream solutions on remote communities, without vastly increased infrastructure and expense.
Outsourcing Community Work to the Private Sector
In the later years of ATSIC, it encouraged an emphasis on outsourcing, as a way of securing desired short-term outcomes. This is creating many long-term problems and seriously disempowering many communities, in what looks like a return to previously discredited ways.
One settlement, which had previously constructed their own houses through CDEP, had their housing contract outsourced, and participants were reduced to “sit-down” and sat by and idly watched outside builders construct inappropriate, city-designed houses, wrongly sited for the elements, without any say in what was unfolding, and without employment prospects on the construction team. Previously, when they had taken responsibility themselves, they had a say in designs and took into account what was needed for heat, sun, wind and rain, etc, and the earned wages and developed skills The cost of houses was far greater, and resulted in fewer houses for the community.
Private industry has no familiarity with either sustainable solutions or community solutions, which result from a different way of thinking that is not practised in mainstream. In fact, much of mainstream relies on planned obsolescence, wear and tear, periodic failure, etc, for repeat business, which is quite the opposite of what is needed. The private sector has no incentive to research and implement sustainable solutions, either, and have never been prompted by Govt to go in that direction, either. Indeed, much of the Aboriginal service industry derives significant income from implementing conventional mainstream, inappropriate, unsustainable temporary non-solutions, which then require their continued attendance and maintenance. This is a major drain on remote Aboriginal community finances, and a major contributor to keeping such communities in deteriorated and impoverished conditions.
Communities have always been under-funded and all funds need careful shepherding. Whenever expensive, outside contractors enter the scene, funds became drained very quickly, travel being a major expense, which always means less money for community activities.
One community had a polythene pipe plumbing system comprised of ad hoc additions by various plumbers over the years. Plans of the plumbing system, and any alterations and repairs, were never made or kept, and accidental cutting of shallow, underground pipes could not be always be avoided. Bursting underground pipes of such an old, failing, temporary plastic system ensured frequent call outs by plumbers, who charged for the 600 klm round trip, and the repair work at commercial rates. The travel charges always far exceeded the work and material charges, depriving the community of much needed funds.
Any time full commercial charges are applied to remote communities, the net outcome is rapid and severe draining of scarce community funds with roll on effect at at all levels, including personal, family, council, project funding, etc, from out of the community and into mainstream cities and towns, comprehensively impoverishing the community. A large proportion of the private sector servicing remote Aboriginal communities erroneously believe that communities are flush with funds that they would only otherwise squander, and treat them as a soft, easy target to exploit. The general decline of remote Aboriginal communities over the past has been accelerated by the intrusion into communities of hard-core, exploitative, unaffordable, commercial practices.