Indigenous community celebrates: clean water and footy

Published 28 June 2007

Tomorrow will be a day of celebration for about 80 people who live at Malabugilmah, a remote Indigenous community, situated in the Clarence Valley, west of Grafton.

They will play their first official football match on their new NRL-sized football field, and showcase their pristine river – which has been transformed from a seriously polluted waterway to one which delivers pure, clean water and is perfect for swimming as well as re-establishing vital ecological values.

When Dr Keith Bolton, a research fellow with Southern Cross University’s Graduate Research College and director of Ecotechnology Australia, conducted a community brainstorming session in Malabugilmah in late 2004 to tackle the community’s major health and environmental problems, a number of significant issues were identified.

“At Malabugilmah the existing sewage treatment plant was failing and was discharging poorly treated sewage directly into a tributary of the Clarence River,” Dr Bolton said.

“This was causing serious environmental and health problems as the community drew its water from the river and the children swam in it.

“Also, the community had no sport or recreational facilities, despite plans being drafted for a football field more than two decades ago. There were a large number of young people living on the community with absolutely nothing to do but most were incredibly keen on the idea of playing football.

“Well known footballer and boxer Tony Mundine was born in the area and is a local legend among the kids who all want to be like him.

“On the community we also found there was a high level of unemployment, and community members had limited access to education and training opportunities because of their remoteness from larger towns.

“There was a real sense of despair and hopelessness, especially among the young people.”

Dr Bolton said the brainstorming sessions also identified community strengths.

“The sewage system provided a regular stream of ‘resourcewater’ containing water and nutrients. Plus, there was an excellent site for a football field,” he said.

“The community had a willing workforce committed to taking ownership over the outcomes of the project and TAFE was willing to work within the community to provide training and certification.”

In May 2005, an historic Shared Responsibility Agreement (SRA) was signed off at Malabugilmah that provided the blueprint and the means to construct sewage and stormwater treatment wetlands, and a football field irrigated with tertiary treated effluent and stormwater.

It was the first SRA signed in the Eastern Division Region of the Indigenous Coordination Centre, and only the second for NSW.

During the project, 14 trainees earned top-up wages and were employed full-time during the construction. TAFE and project contractors provided on-the-job training and certification in areas such as earthworks, irrigation and landscaping.

“This project would not have been possible without the technology that has been incubated within Southern Cross University’s School of Environmental Science and Management and the Centre for Ecotechnology,” Dr Bolton said.

“Now, no effluent is being discharged into the Clarence River, and the water and nutrient resources from the sewage effluent are being used rather than wasted.

“The turf has now settled on the football field and the flow-on benefits to the whole community have been remarkable.

“The increased skill base of the community has directly led to further employment, with community members working in areas as far as Tamworth, Sydney and Canberra installing major irrigation systems.

“Community members have taken considerable pride in their creation, and the community has taken ownership over their issues by turning weaknesses into strengths, and wastewater into ‘resourcewater’.”

Photo: Different aspects of the work undertaken during the Malabugilmah project.

Media contact: Zoe Satherley Southern Cross University media officer, 6620 3144, 0439 132 095