Past thesis projects that were undertaken with Yuwaya Ngarra-li are:
Improving Energy Outcomes for Remote Aboriginal Communities: Walgett NSW as a Case Study
Honours thesis by Aidan Alexander, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (2016), supervised by Anna Bruce and Emily Mitchell
For many remote Aboriginal communities, electricity costs place an unacceptably high financial burden on households resulting in a range of negative impacts upon health and education, and generally limiting socioeconomic development. This phenomenon, in which families struggle to meet their basic energy needs, is called relative energy poverty. As part of UNSW’s partnership with the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG), this paper scopes possible strategies for addressing relative energy poverty in the remote Aboriginal community of Walgett, NSW. The research loosely follows a participatory action research methodology, combining qualitative insights from interviews with community elders with quantitative data on energy use patterns collected during fieldwork in Walgett. Strategies under consideration are analysed in terms of four criteria for success: (i) capacity to benefit, (ii) appropriateness, (iii) low resource requirements and (iv) lack of institutional barriers.
The result is a suite of recommended strategies, split into 3 temporal phases: Phase one consists of installing energy use monitoring devices, implementing an energy use education program, installing solar panels at community organisation headquarters, consolidating the DEG’s billing arrangement and helping residents switch to more competitive tariffs. Phase two consists of energy efficiency retrofits, which can be divided into three sub-strategies: replacing inefficient appliances, minor retrofits performed by the residents and major retrofits performed by a qualified tradesperson. The third phase consists of installing solar PV and solar hot water at residences throughout the community. Meanwhile, the recommended strategy of switching to a prepaid billing arrangement will occur throughout the three phases because it is anticipated that the process of advocating for the required regulatory and industry support will take some time. The various synergies between the recommended strategies are discussed at length. Finally the researcher offers their personal reflections on the process of working with the community on the issue of relative energy poverty. Whilst the results of the study may help Walgett’s Aboriginal community to design and implement some community energy initiatives under the leadership of the DEG, the reflections on the research process itself may be of assistance to other researchers and organisations attempting to tackle relative energy poverty in other communities.
An ABC article featuring Elders and staff from the Dharriwaa Elders Group drawing on the findings of Aidan’s research can be found here.
Groundwater Interaction with the Surface in the Walgett Region: Research Summary
Honours thesis by Rachel Firmer, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (2019), supervised by Associate Professor Martin Andersen
Interactions between groundwater and the surface result in ecologically and culturally significant ecosystems and water features in the landscape. In the Walgett region of northwestern New South Wales, there has been limited research into the characterization of such features and their potential groundwater dependence, despite threats to their integrity from agriculture, mining and climate change. Through the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership with the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG), this thesis comprises a remote sensing-focused exploratory study with the aim of determining the likely role of groundwater in facilitating surface water features and ecosystems in the area. This will provide a basis for their ongoing protection and management. This study uses bi-temporal classifications of Landsat imagery to cluster vegetation by their response to low rainfall periods, in order to infer the likelihood of dependence on groundwater. Key vegetation clusters and additional DEG-nominated sites are further investigated through the synthesis of hydrological data with spectral indicators of vegetation health (primarily the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) over the period 1995 to 2020. The persistence of surface water features is also assessed using the Modified Normalized Difference Water Index. The results enabled site-specific conclusions about groundwater importance over the study area which were of interest to the DEG. Overall, it was found that a large amount of remnant vegetation is likely to be utilizing groundwater, and gives a strong indication that shallow aquifers remain an integral part of this landscape, connected through diffuse recharge, paleochannels, and active rivers, despite extensive modification from agriculture. iii Finally, this thesis validates the use of emerging remote sensing techniques in making inferences about groundwater connection with the surface in the absence of field data. In particular, the ability of these methods to identify both broad and local scale patterns, and to facilitate targeted field investigations, are demonstrated.
Investigating the Thermal Comfort of Aboriginal Housing in North-West NSW and Opportunities for Improvement
Honours thesis by Angela Begg, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (2019), supervised by Anna Bruce and Alistair Sproul
Unbeknownst to many, energy poverty is a problem that over 3 million Australians are facing. While the pressures of rising retail electricity prices are being felt economywide, they are being felt most intensely by low-income large family households in Aboriginal communities. Although very little is known about energy poverty in Australia’s Aboriginal communities, it is believed that the reason why Aboriginal households are those most vulnerable to energy stress is threefold; resultant of poor quality housing, inefficient household appliances, and households having high occupancy rates. In an attempt to improve the thermal comfort of Aboriginal housing in North West New South Wales (NW NSW), the Aboriginal Housing Office (AHO) introduced the AHO AirConditioning Policy. Under this policy, reverse cycle air-conditioning systems were installed in Aboriginal-specific social housing owned by the Aboriginal Housing Office. However, given what is known about energy poverty in Australia’s Aboriginal communities, it is important to understand if this was the most effective approach for improving the thermal comfort of Aboriginal housing, or if other approaches could have been taken. Presently, there are no studies that explore the thermal comfort of Aboriginal housing in NW NSW, or evaluate the different approaches that could be taken to improve this. Therefore, using Walgett, NSW as a case study, this thesis utilises a mixed methods research approach to characterise the thermal comfort of existing Aboriginal housing in Walgett, and investigate how effectively the thermal and comfort of this housing could be improved by: (i) retrofitting the building envelope of existing houses, or (ii) replacing existing housing with new “low energy” housing; and how these different solutions could perform under the AHO Air Conditioning Policy. Combining the findings of semi-structured interviews with Aboriginal householders in Walgett, thermal imagery of Aboriginal housing in Walgett, and FirstRate5 modelling of different housing solutions, it has been found that, when considering a variety of criteria points, the thermal comfort of the existing Aboriginal housing stock in Walgett it is best improved by retrofitting the building envelope of existing housing, rather than replacing existing housing with new “low energy” housing
Talking back to policy: a case study of Indigenous community participation
A key research project that was foundational in the development of the long-term partnership between DEG and UNSW is the PhD thesis by Inara Walden, Social Policy Research Centre (2016), supervised by Dr Jen Skatterbol and Professor Eileen Baldry
Past Australian government policies have controlled, disenfranchised and infantilised Indigenous people, strongly contributing to their ongoing disadvantage and poverty. During Australia’s formal policy phase of self-determination, 1972 to 2004, Aboriginal people emphasised their fundamental desire to define and control their own priorities and destinies. This desire continues today, however the policy landscape is now more ambiguous than ever about the role of Aboriginal people in policy making. This thesis makes a case study of processes taking place when a remote NSW Aboriginal community asserted its right to participate in policy planning and decision-making. The research focused on negotiations between the Aboriginal community and government as a particular policy was implemented. The study aimed to investigate the extent to which Aboriginal people desire and pursue participation in policy making, and whether this is valued and enabled by governments.The methodology is informed by grounded theory and Indigenous research methodologies. Data was collected primarily via semi-structured interviews with Aboriginal community representatives and government officers over a three year period, along with policy analysis and observational data. Reciprocity and relationship building were vital to sustaining the researcher’s collaboration with the community over time. Now enshrined in the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, participation is an emerging concept and site of debate within the scholarship and practice of Indigenous policy making. This thesis makes a timely contribution to that scholarship by applying concepts of participation developed through four decades of practice, critique and theorising in the sphere of international development. Debates about what constitutes participation are salient to analysis of everyday negotiations between Aboriginal people and governments. The research reveals a strong drive and commitment from Aboriginal community representatives to participate as local decision-makers, and a range of imperatives that urge governments to strive to enable this. However structural and resource challenges undermined the level of Aboriginal involvement and quality of participation achieved. The study indicates that Aboriginal participation in policy decision-making may be essential to re-empower those affected by colonization, and enable Aboriginal agency in setting goals and aspirations to improve their own lives and livelihoods.