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Housing Stock: Housing in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
ACCESSIBLE AND REMOTE AREAS
Having a home that provides adequate shelter and basic services is an expectation of most Australians. The lack of such housing, or difficulties with the supply of drinking water, electricity and sewerage systems, has a major impact on the quality of life of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
This review uses information from the 1999 Community Housing and Infrastructure Needs Survey, conducted by the ABS on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. It describes the housing circumstances of people living in discrete Indigenous communities located in remote parts of Australia. Remoteness has been determined by an index based on the road distance to service centres (see box above).
In 1999, 81% of the Indigenous population living in discrete communities lived in remote area communities, over half of them (54%) in the Northern Territory. Together, the 88,700 people living in discrete Indigenous communities located in remote areas represented close to 22% of all Indigenous people in Australia.1 Many of the communities had small populations: of the 1,187 communities involved, 914 (77%) had fewer than 50 people, while only 121 communities, (10%), had 200 or more people.
A large proportion of Australians either own or are purchasing their own home (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Housing: National summary table). However, this pattern of tenure is not the norm in remote Indigenous communities. Most of the land is owned by the community as a whole, rather than by an individual. The 1999 Survey showed that 78% of all dwellings in these communities were owned or managed by community organisations, with only 1% of dwellings privately owned.
Research has found that two of the major problems with living conditions of Indigenous people are with the inadequate supply of houses and with the poor quality of much of the housing that is available, both being regarded as unacceptable by general community standards.3 It may be for these reasons that some Indigenous people share their dwellings with other people, increasing the level of crowding in their household. However many also prefer to live, or at least sleep, near to their close kin.3 As a result dwellings occupied by Indigenous people tend to have more people than those of other Australians. In remote Indigenous communities, the average occupancy ratio was 5.8 people per dwelling, compared to the national average of 2.6 (see Australian Social Trends 2000, Housing: National summary table).
Not all residents of the communities surveyed lived in permanent dwellings. In 1999, 13% of all the dwellings in remote communities were temporary dwellings such as caravans, tin sheds or humpies, housing a population of over 7,000 people. Temporary dwellings were particularly prevalent in small communities: 27% of the population in remote small communities of fewer than 50 people occupied temporary dwellings.
The condition of permanent dwellings in terms of the extent of repairs required provides further insight into the quality of housing. One third of all community owned or managed dwellings in these communities needed either major repairs or replacement. The need for this level of repair was more common in dwellings located in communities of 50 people or more.
The reliability of the infrastructure provided is also important. The provision and maintenance of basic essential services such as water, sewerage and power, are critical elements in the development of a healthy living environment.4 While the large majority of people living in remote Indigenous communities have access to these services, many communities experienced problems in their operation.
Availability of drinking water, electricity and sewerage systems
In this review, the availability of drinking water, electricity and sewerage systems are examined as a measure of the infrastructure available in these remote Indigenous communities.
The supply of water to a community can determine the viability of that community. Without investments in constructing permanent storage and delivery systems, communities can have a precarious existence. In 1999, only 16 communities did not have an organised water supply. These communities were very small, with few inhabitants.
The majority of communities (65%) reported that bore water was the most common form of organised drinking water in their community. This was true for communities of all sizes.
Although other fuels can be used for cooking and lighting, the supply of electricity is generally considered a basic amenity for a wide range of purposes. The supply of electricity to remote Indigenous communities was not as extensive as it was for water, with 11% of communities not having a supply of electricity. Virtually all of these communities had a population of fewer than 50 people (98%). Among all the remote communities domestic generators (29%) and community generators (25%) were the main sources of electricity supply.
The proper disposal of sewage is an important environmental health issue. In 1999, 69 communities (6% of all remote Indigenous communities), had no sewerage system. Once again, almost all of these communities (97%) had a population of fewer than 50 people.
The most common main form of sewerage system was septic tanks with a leach drain, which were present in 46% of these communities. Pit toilets were also a common form of sewage disposal (25% overall), but they were less common in larger communities.
Problems experienced with infrastructure
Providing accommodation appropriate to the weather conditions and other aspects of the environment, and maintaining the existing facilities, is a difficulty in all remote communities.5 It is important that the equipment and infrastructure be properly constructed, particularly for the circumstances in which such facilities are required. It has also been suggested that taking into account the high cost of repairs in remote areas, much of the equipment is not sufficiently robust or durable.3
This view is illustrated by the problems associated with water restrictions, power interruptions, and sewerage overflows and leakages. Remote communities of 50 or more Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people were surveyed for problems with the operation of these services.
In the 12 months prior to the survey, water restrictions were experienced in 36% of remote Indigenous communities of 50 people or more. The most common reason for having water restricted was the breakdown of equipment (reported by 19% of communities). These breakdowns happened more frequently in larger communities (22% of communities of 200 or more) than smaller communities (16% of communities of 50-199 people). Natural causes such as a normal dry season (9%), or drought (2%) were also reported as reasons for water restrictions.
Any interruption to the supply of electrical power will have an impact in many ways, particularly in the refrigeration of food, washing of clothes and contact with the outside world in the form of television. In 1999, power interruptions occurred in 85% of communities. Equipment breakdown was again a major problem, with 52% of remote Indigenous communities of 50 or more people having this experience. Interruptions caused by storms, which occurred in 37% of these communities, was the only natural cause reported for producing power interruptions.
Any overflow or leakage of sewerage can impact on the health of a community by providing conditions where disease spreads rapidly. In 1999, 59% of the communities examined reported that they had experienced sewerage overflows or leakages. Nearly all the reported reasons for difficulties related to maintenance and support problems: blocked drains (34%); equipment failure (22%); insufficient capacity of the septic system (18%); and design or installation problems (2%).
Natural reasons played only a small part in causing sewerage overflows or leakages. The main natural cause reported for overflows or leakages of sewerage for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was the annual wet season, which caused difficulties in 8% of these communities.
1 This was calculated by dividing the population of remote Indigenous communities by the projected total Indigenous population (Low series) for 1999. Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, Experimental Projections of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population, Cat no. 3231.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care 1999, Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA), Occasional papers series no. 6, Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, Canberra.
3 Neutze, M. 1998, Housing and Infrastructure for Indigenous Australians, Urban Research Program working paper no. 65, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra.
4 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997, Community Housing and Infrastructure Program Policy 1997-2000, ATSIC, Canberra.
5 The National Housing Strategy 1991, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing: Discussion package, NHS, Canberra.