03May 2013

Food for thought – an Australian recipe for water innovation

By Tony Barrett, City of Kingston


In this blog Tony presents an Australian local government perspective on the latest organisational shift in sustainable water management and how these transferrable initiatives may benefit the UK in progressing SuDS.


Before attempting this recipe, you need to ensure you have a very challenging base on which to build your successful and innovative model. To make this base; mix together some prolonged, reservoir drying drought conditions and dangerous heat with some flashy, catastrophic floods. Then place these climatic extremes to one side. Next, roll out some large impervious cities (making sure you use the variety that rapidly expand when you pour on population) and drizzle on some ageing water infrastructure. Finally, cover your cities with the extreme climatic mix and let stand for at least a decade.


This all too familiar mix of ingredients might seem more like a recipe for disaster than innovation, however; history has proven that society tends to do its best work when faced with such complex and persistent problems.


One good example of this is in Australia where a new, collaborative approach to water management is gradually turning the tide on ‘the conventional or traditional’ to deliver smarter, more integrated water management solutions.

A shared vision

Terms such as water sensitive urban design (WSUD), integrated water cycle management (IWCM) and sustainable water management have been around for some time now. They are often interchanged and, depending on the intended audience or industry, can mean slightly different things. That aside, they are all linked by an aspiration to deliver multiple benefits and close the loop on the traditional, linear water management systems.


Whilst these approaches have gained ‘demi-mainstream’ status amongst the Australian water industry, it seemed unlikely that non-engineering professionals would ever discuss the benefits of WSUD during a family barbeque. That is, until recently.


Right now, the Australian water sector is undergoing a radical transformation and it seems as though a shared vision for a water sensitive future has become embedded across a broad range of professions and organisations. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily mean the challenges have gone away, they are certainly easier to address with everyone on the same page.

Turning vision into something tangible

The current vision goes beyond WSUD and brings with it a new set of buzzwords that are so appealing, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of it all. It sells the concept that, if we get this right, we will create places that are even more ‘liveable’. How could anyone say no to this?


The key to its popularity seems to be that it’s not industry specific. It has attributes that include green infrastructure, bringing water to the surface, healthy waterways, public open space, cooler microclimates, reduced flooding, water literate communities and attractive urban streetscapes.


Obviously, turning a vision into reality is a complex process but each organisation is emerging from the fog with a better understanding of their role in how to make this possible.


One great example of a new collaborative structure can be found in Melbourne and the surrounding state of Victoria. Here, the liveability agenda is considered so important that the Victorian State Government recently formed the Office of Living Victoria (OLV). This department is charged with the responsibility of “delivering a smart and resilient water system for a liveable, sustainable, productive Melbourne”. Right off the bat, the OLV announced a $50 million (£32 million) competitive funding round. The intention of this fund is to support projects and initiatives that exemplify the leading edge of Integrated Water Cycle Management (IWCM) and help deliver the state government’s Living Melbourne, Living Victoria policy.


At the same time, local authorities are beginning to move away from opportunistic and sporadic implementation of WSUD projects as they move towards a more considered, whole of catchment approach. Most councils in metropolitan Melbourne now have, or are in the process of developing, an IWCM strategy with targets and objectives for the urban water cycle of surface water, drinking water, waste water and groundwater.


These strategies are often supported by implementation plans packed full of actions across a broad range of councils’ activities such as planning policy and infrastructure projects. At the blunt end, this will deliver an equally diverse range of projects ranging from the ‘everyday’ water efficiency upgrades and community education campaigns to the more adventurous green walls, sewer mining and even retrofitted industrial estate surface water harvesting schemes.


These strategies may still be ‘work in progress’ but they are already proving to be an invaluable tool in communicating the benefits of total cycle water management to the wider community.


What’s really encouraging about this shift in local government is these strategies are not a mandatory requirement. They appear to be driven instead by natural evolution as councils look for more ways to ensure their municipalities are resilient to the ever-increasing extreme climatic events and population growth.

Giving the champions a leg up

Much of the work undertaken by these Victorian councils wouldn’t be possible without the funding and support of Melbourne Water. This state government owned water authority has a diverse portfolio of responsibilities including water supply catchment management, drinking water treatment, sewage treatment and even waterway management. Not surprisingly, Melbourne Water is a key player in the regional integrated water management game and has a very strong collaborative role with the local authorities.


One of their more recent initiatives, in partnership with industry capacity builders; Clearwater, is the facilitation of regional IWCM groups for Councils. Each group typically has around 10 councils that get together every couple of months to ‘check-in’, swap notes and iron out any problems they may be having in the implementation of WSUD and IWCM. Whilst sounding more like an anonymous problem support group, this collaborative network ultimately fast tracks the progress of member councils on their water sensitive journey.

Pushing the envelope

If all this development occurring during the past 2 years wasn’t exciting enough, the Australian Federal Government recently committed to support a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Water Sensitive Cities. The facts and figures surrounding this 9 year program are staggering with over $100 million (£65 million) of research funds being used to guide $100 billion (£65 billion) of investment by the Australian water industry and $550 billion (£360 billion) in the private sector.


The ultimate aim of the program is to “….deliver the socio-technical urban water management solutions, education and training programs, and industry engagement required to make towns and cities water sensitive”. Just a quick glance at the CRC webpage unveils the size of this program where 70 plus participating organisations are collaborating to make this vision a reality.

Relevance to the UK?

This is all very positive news. However, if we take the rose tinted spectacles off for a moment, we know that there is still a long way to go. For every Australian state that is making headway, there is another being scuppered by its own politics. This natural cycle of ‘lead, lag, catch-up, lead’ amongst the State and local governments is what fuels the industry champions’ creativity to keep pushing for change through the doldrums.


Right now, in a time of austerity, demonstrating the true economics of IWCM initiatives appears to be the key. Most government projects are traditionally selected on their capital costs using simple cost benefit analysis tools. Whilst this approach works for straightforward capital works projects, it places larger, more complex, and arguably more expensive projects at a disadvantage when competing for limited budgets.


For true IWCM projects, a deeper understanding is needed to ensure project costs are analysed fairly against their full financial benefit to a wide group of potential beneficiaries. These financial benefits may include outcomes that are related to an improved amenity or a healthier community and ultimately begs the question; what is the dollar cost benefit of an urban forest, a green wall, an urban park or a cooler local climate?


For distant observers, the UK clearly has the ‘technical know-how’ to mainstream SuDS and could be on the brink of significant change. The Water Framework Directive, the 2007 floods and subsequent Flood and Water Management Act has set the stage for urgent reform. Could flood amelioration become the economic proxy to drive greater benefits from water management projects and bring the developers in line with best practice? This is highly likely; however, it does come with a warning. Flooding is still largely in the Engineers’ Realm and, to achieve true integrated water management outcomes, deliver the wider benefits required around water quality and place-making, requires wider involvement from disciplines, champions and not least local and national leadership. So the big questions are, where does this vision sit? Who owns it, who drives it and how?


It’s clear that organisations like CIRIA have a role in supporting champions and the delivery of sustainable water management. However, mainstreaming these approaches in the UK is likely to require a proactive approach to planning, incentivisation and regulation that can only really be delivered by central and local government leadership (and maybe resources).


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