Remote Essential and Municipal Services

The provision of essential and municipal services for regional and remote Aboriginal communities.

Background

Arrangements for the supply of power, water and wastewater to remote Aboriginal communities are different from the arrangements that exist elsewhere in the State.

The provision of essential services to remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia had, until 2015, been shared between the Western Australian and Commonwealth Governments.

In 2015, the Commonwealth Government withdrew from its role in the joint funding of power and water infrastructure and services, leaving full responsibility with the State.

This change provided the State Government with the opportunity for reform.

In 2017, separate State and Commonwealth essential and municipal services programs were merged under the WA Government to improve the efficiency and quality of services for regional and remote Aboriginal communities.

Remote Essential and Municipal Services program

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Generally, power, water and wastewater to remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia are not supplied by regulated utilities.

Instead, the Remote Essential and Municipal Services (REMS) program is delivered by the Department of Communities. The State Government provides the Department with an annual appropriation (funding) for REMS in the State Budget. The Minister for Housing is the responsible Minister.

REMS provides essential and municipal services to 141 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia: 138 remote communities and three town-based communities. 

It involves the maintenance of power, water and wastewater infrastructure, community roads, airstrips, fire breaks and landfills, and rubbish collection.  A related Royal Life Saving WA program funds the operation and maintenance of swimming pools in some communities.

REMS aims to improve the viability and sustainability of Aboriginal communities and contributes to primary and environmental health and community wellbeing.

The program is an important employer of Aboriginal people, with contracted regional service providers required to achieve targets for Aboriginal employment and enable skills training for Aboriginal employees.

Two of the current regional service providers are 100 per cent Aboriginal owned and the third is 50 per cent Aboriginal owned.

Services provided

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The provision of services under REMS depends on several factors: size of the community (population and/or number of dwellings); level of infrastructure; frequency of occupancy; and historical servicing levels.

Therefore, not all communities receive the same level and type of service.

For example, of the 141 communities involved in REMS:

  • 124 have a power service maintained by REMS. The remaining 17 receive electricity from Horizon Power.
  • 137 have a water service maintained by REMS. The remaining four manage their water supply independently.
  • 47 have a reticulated wastewater service maintained by REMS. The remaining communities generally have individual septic systems.
  • 133 receive municipal services from REMS. The remaining eight are town-based communities serviced by local government or have in place other arrangements.

The type of services provided under REMS are:

  • planned, preventative and emergency maintenance
  • asset replacement and upgrades
  • water and wastewater sampling and testing
  • management of diesel fuel, lubricants and coolants
  • household rubbish collection
  • general litter control
  • governance and administration operational support.

View a summary of services provided to remote communities.

Delivery arrangements

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The Department of Communities contracts organisations to deliver essential and municipal services to remote Aboriginal communities on its behalf.

A contracted state program manager provides technical support for the essential services (power, water and wastewater) component of REMS, and oversees, monitors and coordinates the delivery of those services by three regional service providers.

The current contracted state program manager is WSP Australia.

Regional service providers are contracted to provide on-the-ground essential services to Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley, Pilbara-Mid West and Goldfields-Central.

The current regional service providers are:

They provide a 24-hour, 7 day a week on-call facility including remote monitoring of critical infrastructure and asset alarms.

The Department also directly funds 16 Aboriginal corporations to deliver municipal services to 33 of the 141 communities.

The Royal Life Saving Association of WA has a current contract with the Department to provide operational and maintenance support for swimming pools in eight regional and remote Aboriginal communities.

Another contractor, Recharge Petroleum, supplies and delivers diesel fuel, lubricants and coolants to remote Aboriginal communities. Most communities have a stand-alone power system based upon diesel generators, which provide electricity and are vital for the operation of water and wastewater services.

Monitoring and performance

The contracted state program manager and regional service providers for REMS are appointed through a public tender process and their performance is assessed quarterly by the Department of Communities.

Reports and enquiries

Residents of remote Aboriginal communities serviced by REMS should contact their regional service provider to report a service breakdown or power, water, wastewater or municipal emergencies.

They provide a 24-hour, 7 day a week on-call facility:

For general enquiries or information about REMS, such as service levels and frequency, contact the Department of Communities at: remsprogram@communities.wa.gov.au.

Overall quality and standards

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The quality and standards of essential services provided by REMS.

Essential services

The quality and standards of essential services provided by REMS is guided by Remote Service Level Guidelines and detailed contracts with providers.

The guidelines were approved by the State Government in 2014 and aim for the safe, reliable and efficient delivery of services. 

Regional and remote Aboriginal communities are diverse and present different challenges for service providers and economies of scale for funding.

Three key factors affect service levels:

  1. Supply – stand-alone systems are not interconnected with other supply systems and do not have access to additional redundancy or capacity available with more complex grid supply networks.
  2.  Location – the location of communities in remote and very remote areas has a significant impact on the provision of essential services and subsequent costs.
  3. Size – the small number of residents in remote locations means there is often limited technical knowledge or resources locally to support delivery of services, and that per capita investment and service costs can be high.

Power supply

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Power services provided by REMS.

The service level standards for power supplies are governed by issues of public health, safety and continuity of supply.

Four guidelines for power supply are contained in the Remote Service Level Guidelines:

  1. power supply quality
  2. power quantity and security
  3. continuity of power supply
  4. noise levels (for generation equipment).
Water services provided by REMS.

Water supply

Two guidelines for water supply are contained in the Remote Service Level Guidelines:

  1. water quantity and security
  2. water pressure, flow and continuity.

Water quality

The Department of Health regulates health standards for drinking water supplies in WA.

Supporting this, the Remote Service Level Guidelines apply to drinking water quality for communities covered by the guidelines. The drinking water quality guideline includes:

  • microbiological water quality (health parameters)
  • physical and chemical water quality (health parameters)
  • physical and chemical water quality (aesthetic parameters).

The Department and its service providers apply these parameters to make water safe to drink for communities covered by the guidelines.

Note: in a small number of situations, the Department of Communities may provide an alternative drinking water supply, such as bottled water, on the advice of the Department of Health. Remote communities and households are regularly notified if this is the case.

Water quality testing

Water is tested in all remote communities that receive a water service through REMS. The frequency and type of testing are set within the Remote Service Level Guidelines for drinking water quality.

Small and large remote communities typically have tests at monthly and six-monthly intervals, including testing for microbiological quality. Small self-managed remote communities might have only an annual test for physical and chemical water quality (the guidelines do not require any testing in these communities).

Testing for water quality in remote locations is a challenging and expensive process. A trained technician must travel to the location (by chartered aeroplane or road) to take samples of the water. The samples are then transported in secure and temperature-controlled packaging, within 24 hours, to an accredited laboratory in Perth for testing.

The Department and its contracted state program manager review all test results and take any required actions. All test results are supplied to the Department of Health (monthly) and State Government’s Advisory Committee for the Purity of Water (quarterly), which is chaired by the Department of Health. The Department of Communities acts immediately on advice or instruction from the Department of Health about water quality.

Microbial testing

A key test for water quality is for the harmful pathogen, Naegleria fowleri. This pathogen species of Naegleria (the only species that is harmful) has never been detected in reticulated water (supplied to households) by the REMS microbiological testing program.

Another key test is for the harmful pathogen Escherichia coli (E. coli). Very occasionally this has been found in a community water sample from a small number of communities receiving a REMS water service. If this happens, the Department of Communities immediately advises the community to boil water for all potable use (drinking, food preparation, washing dishes, brushing teeth and bathing).

Boiling the water makes it safe to drink. The Department of Communities also remediates (fixes) the problem straight away and retests the water system until E. coli is no longer detected. Almost always, the first round of remediation fixes the problem.

Chemical testing

In remote locations in Western Australia the only realistic source of water supply for a community is groundwater. In the Goldfields and Mid-West regions, some groundwater may contain naturally occurring nitrates. It can be technically difficult to remove these nitrates from water.

Nitrates in drinking water can be harmful to human health. There are health guidelines for how much nitrate in water is safe to drink for infants less than three months old (including when mixing infant formula) and the general population.

The Department of Communities always follows advice from the Department of Health in cases where nitrate levels in groundwater may be higher than desirable. In a small number of remote communities in the Goldfields and Mid-West regions, REMS currently provides a safe alternative drinking water supply for infants less than three months old. This is a standard practise by all water providers including the Water Corporation, as advised by the Department of Health.

Occasionally the groundwater source for a remote community may contain naturally occurring uranium. High levels of uranium in drinking water may cause health issues. The level of uranium in groundwater may naturally fluctuate but occasionally it can rise above recommended health guidelines.

The Department of Communities always follows advice from the Department of Health in cases where uranium levels in groundwater are higher than desirable, including providing a safe alternative drinking water supply.

Currently, based on test results for various chemicals, bottled water is provided for all residents in three small communities and two small self-managed communities on advice from the Department of Health.

Wastewater

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Wastewater services provided by REMS.

The Department of Health regulates wastewater management in WA.

The management of wastewater and wastewater systems in regional and remote Aboriginal communities must comply with the applicable health and environmental laws and regulations.

Two guidelines for wastewater supply are contained in the Remote Service Level Guidelines:

  1. system capacity
  2. service levels.

Municipal services

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Municipal services provided by REMS.

REMS’ municipal services operate under guidelines based on these three values:

  • sustainability – balancing social, environmental and financial considerations
  • simplicity – reducing complexity
  • local focus – best practice management for the benefit of the community.

The guidelines are:

Page reviewed 3 June 2021