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Australian Water Outlook reveals concerns about water security

The 2016 Australian Water Outlook survey results, launched at the World Water Congress in Brisbane, again, made for fascinating reading.

Alongside the Australian Water Association, and with the support of Arup University, we investigated attitudes to water issues among the Australian water industry and the wider community. For the second year running we have seen a high level of concern about water shortages and security among the community – more than 40% of respondents left a comment on their water security views.

Little girl near river Little girl near river

I would like to focus on this particular issue. First, when we say ‘water security’ – we are referring to the certainty Australians have that its water needs will be met into the future on an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable basis.

Only 4% of industry and 3% of community respondents were completely confident that Australia currently has sufficient water security, with more than half of both groups not confident.

Coupled with this, only 5% of community respondents were very confident that governments were focused on water security as an important issue and were considering water supply as a part of city planning and urban growth. Fewer still said they thought governments’ were working together to make decisions about water resources (3%).

Clearly, it appears that expectations are not being met! So, why is this? And what could be done? ”

Daniel Lambert Daniel Lambert Australasia Water Leader

We have no federal water body. There is no focused or coordinated national approach to water. The National Water Commission was abolished in 2004. So, who is looking at water security issues across the country? It would certainly also help drive higher levels of competition and integration between water, energy and telecommunication companies. We could have a joint focus on integrated planning and maintenance. Is it time to re-launch the NWC?

Currently, most federal and state money is going to rail and roads infrastructure projects. While 10 years ago water may have been seen as a frontline issue – drought was headline news then, with 2006 the driest year on record – it is not necessarily being seen so at the moment. So, government has competing, challenging areas of focus.

There are economies of scale that could potentially be achieved if, for example in NSW, the 100 or so council owned water utilities were brought under one roof (or if significant consolidation of the smaller utilities was considered). A state wide government body that helped to focus on reducing the inherent efficiencies would potentially help free up more funding that would help with addressing challenges like water security in regional and rural areas.

A well-trodden and contentious issue, is private funding.

How about trying it on a trial basis? Take Broken Hill for example, an extremely remote town that is difficult for utilities to service. Could a private sector partnership be trialed here? Can they part subsidise new innovative schemes and we can look at the potential benefits? It’s a low risk strategy. We can develop lessons learned through adopting different business models for small regional utilities which could potentially then be applied to other parts of Australia.

Water is not metered per apartment, unlike energy. So the younger generation – the 18-30 demographic – stood out in this survey. Many are renting due to rising house prices, or still living at home with parents paying the bills. A significant proportion of them therefore had little understanding of water, its usage and cost. They also haven’t lived through the water restrictions as much as the generation above. Is this partly a communication issue? Could government do more to educate on the scarcity of water? Could the water utilities invest more in tech to ensure they are communicating through the right channels to reach the smartphone generation?

There are many more ways that the issue of water shortages and security, can be addressed.

We covered a few of these – with a focus on the urban sector – in our 'The Future of Urban Water: Scenarios for Water Utilities in 2040'.

We have to remember Australia is the driest populated continent on earth. Australia’s population is expected to rise 60% by 2050. We need to enact change. We cannot predict the future of course, but we can shape it.