The remote pools project reviving and reopening public pools in central Australia


Belinda Andrew is a lifeguard in the desert. 

She’s from Utju, a community west of Alice Springs, and helps run the swimming pool there. 

The clear blue pool is the only place to swim for hundreds of kilometres in the Central Australian bush, besides waterholes, that aren’t always full.

“I like looking after the kids,” she says. 

A woman wearing a lifeguard uniform holds a tray of cut-up oranges near a swimming pool.

Belinda Andrew and her 18-year-old son are both lifeguards at the Utju pool.(Supplied: Oliver Eclipse)

There’s evidence swimming in chlorinated water reduces infections and also improves school attendance because children can’t use the pool unless they’re in class. 

Belinda sees the benefits firsthand. 

“It keeps them nice and clean and healthy,” she says. 

Her son, 18-year-old son Ishmael Windy, has started working with her at the pool and her two-year-old son, Richard, is already learning to swim. 

“It’s going to change my life. Working with families and looking after people,” Ishmael says. 

A mother holds her two-year-old son in the stands of a swimming stadium, the son wears an Australian jersey.

Belinda and her two-year-old son Richard cheering on swimmers at the 2024 Australian Swimming Trials.(Supplied: Remote Pools Project)

Too many remote pools not being used

These desert lifeguards want more remote pools to be reopened, revitalised, and maintained to unlock the benefits they offer.

They recently travelled to Brisbane for the first time to watch the Olympic swimming trials and raise awareness.

Three adults and one child stand in front of a  '2024 Australia Swimming Trials' sign.

The group travelled to the Olympic swimming trials in Brisbane a bid to raise awareness, and money for remote pools.(Supplied: Remote Pools Project)

They were joined by former Australian-team swimmer Kurt Herzog, who’s now the manager of the YMCA’s Remote Pools Project that partners with communities to run the local pools.

The operating model employs and trains local people, and engages experienced volunteers as additional support. 

They also work with community members to find ways to improve outcomes.

In some cases, the model has resulted in local pools reopening.

But it doesn’t come cheap. 

“We’re basically here to make as much noise as possible in every way possible,” Kurt says. 

Kurt started working in remote communities after missing out on qualifying for the Olympics by 0.2 of a second in 2016, so he’s still got friendships and connections among the swimming elite. 

An adult swim instructor assists as two young children practice floating on their backs in clear water

The remote pools project is about keeping pools in remote Aboriginal communities open.(Supplied: Oliver Eclipse)

He says more and more locals are training up as lifeguards, with particularly good results at Lytentye Purte, south-east of Alice Springs.

“We’ve got almost 20 locals there working on a rotating roster, team leaders, it’s all in [Arrente] language,” he says.

“We’ve got signs in language, rules in language. We’re conscious they are the ones who know what’s best for their communities.”

Kurt says other remote communities, that have pools that aren’t being used, are missing out.

“It’s Australia-wide,” he says about the problem.  

“In the Territory, there are 18 remote community pools and we’ve brought back seven of them.

“There’s another two we want to try to bring back within the next year that we know about, and there’s probably about two or three that are neglected or abandoned as well.

“I’ve had messages from remote communities in Queensland, there’s a few in South Australia, and there’s probably a few more in Western Australia too. So our goal is to bring them all back.”

A child writes some of the rules of the pool on a yellow kickboard

All children swim for free but, to prevent lifeguards acting as babysitters, children under 10 require an adult at the pool with them.(Supplied: Remote Pools Project)

Big benefits but big financial costs

Kurt says the Olympic trials visit was a bid to raise awareness, and money, to take some of the financial burden off local councils.

“We’re very well aware that housing and healthcare and education are above us and we want to push more money that way,” he says.  

He points out running remote pools is expensive, from buying and transporting chemicals to paying staff, but he says the health benefits and social impacts outweigh the cost.

A group of about a dozen children smile as they jump into a pool with their arms up

In remote communities, the public pool is also an important social hub.(Supplied: Remote Pools Project)

“We’ve got pools out at Kintore and other communities that external agencies are screaming at us to open that pool because skin, ear, and eye infections are going through the roof and they lead to long-term issues like rheumatic heart disease,” he says.

“I’ve seen it first hand, the community has, the doctors and nurses have, everyone knows it.”

The YMCA’s Remote Pools Project aims to have up to 100 locals trained to work at community pools in the Northern Territory by the end of the year. 


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