Yuelamu is a small Indigenous community of between 200 and 300 people, with the population varying depending on whether the family has come to visit.
Located 280 kilometers north-west of Alice Springs, the community is in one of the most remote parts of the country, nestled among rocky hills at the end of a long stretch of red, dirt road.
The large community dam and lush greenery surrounding the township are deceptive. The reality is that this is one of the most water-stressed communities in the country.
In Yuelamu, the homes have two taps: one for drinking water that has been cleaned through a process of chlorination; and the other for washing dishes, showering and cleaning clothes.
There are signs around the desert community reminding residents of the precarious water situation and of what they can do to save the precious resource.
Local school teacher Rosina Stafford remembers drinking from the Yuelamu dam when she was a child, and going to a nearby creek which she says is now dry.
Town’s only water source running out
In the community council office, photos of ‘Tidy Towns’ awards commending the community for its water conservation efforts are stuck up on the walls.
But being frugal is not enough.
NT’s Power and Water Corporation’s most recent measurements suggest the small aquifer that has been the community’s main water source since 2016 has just 18 months of supply left.
It’s an improvement on last month’s measurements, when the utility announced the groundwater supply had hit an all-time low and crews were immediately directed to truck water to the community.
While the latest sampling has pressed pause on the need to truck water in, crews have begun work on receiving facilities for trucked water from a temporary bore on the Tanami Highway, 20 kilometers away, due to open by the end of May.
It’s a band-aid solution with a hefty price tag, but one that could be the town’s lifeline.
Kylie Climie, a senior manager of demand and developer services at Power and Water Corporation says the works are a back-up solution.
“We don’t need it right now, no, but we’re planning to be able to use it in case we one day do need it.”
Ms Climie says the corporation is simply searching for a long-term fix for the community. Options include a new aquifer within 60km of Yuelamu, or reviving the community dam that was the main water source until an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae more than six years ago.
Concern for future
Older residents have seen Yuelamu struggle through one water crisis after another, and without water security they’re worried about the future for their children and grandchildren.
Local leader David Stafford has spoken out about the community’s struggles for years.
“This is a good place, you know. We can’t move out. We can’t go to Yuendumu [a neighbouring community, about 70 kilometres away]he says.
Mount Allan School assistant teacher Sharon Briscoe says the Northern Territory government plans to build more homes in the community, heightening concerns for water security.
“If we don’t have water, we’re going to get new houses, so how’s that going to work? We need water,” she says.
Generating water from thin air
Near the Yuelamu council office, 30 hydro panels produce up to 150 liters of clean drinking water a day by extracting humidity from the air using solar energy.
The council purchased the system in 2020 using a $120,000 grant from the Northern Territory government.
Although the technology works, it’s not widely used by Yuelamu locals.
Local authority member David McCormack says he uses the water from the four taps when he goes hunting.
“Some people use it … some people don’t go there because no car,” he says.
The company that manufactures the hydro panels, SOURCE Global, wants to expand the project by putting two panels on every Yuelamu house.
It estimates that would provide 10L of drinking water per house per day at a total cost for the community of $8,000 per month.
“Many of those things may be a long-term solution, but for us [we have] the ability to extend a basic level of service for drinking water to those households virtually immediately.”
Mr Bartrop says the hydro-panel technology is working in other locations to complement existing water sources. Its aim is to reduce the reliance on bottled water or high-sugar drink alternatives by delivering high-quality drinking water directly to households.
Power and Water Corporation’s Ms Climie called the hydro panels “a really great initiative,” but said it would be too expensive to use the panels on a community-wide scale in Yuelamu.