The wicked problem of creating water sustainable cities

I am blogging from the Sydney Water Sensitive Cities Workshop. The conference has been a mix of presentations by leaders in the area, and workshops by attendees and has been  co-hosted by the International Water Centre, the National Urban Water Governance Program and Monash University.

The attendees come from all sorts of organisations, but because local government in Australia has responsibility for managing urban planning and stormwater, there are a lot of local government people here. Professions represented are engineers, landscape architects and scientists.

It has been made clear that we are very much at the beginning of the journey towards water sustainable cities.

Listening to the views of the urban planners and architects, it was an interesting insight to hear that water sustainability can be a driver for creating more livable, greener cities that are just more pleasant places to be. Yet again Singapore has emerged as a leader in WSUD, with Tony Wong from EDAW presenting the work they have done to increase the utility provided by Singapore’s waterways, converting concrete channels into water parks with integrated stormwater management and treatment.

The unfortunate reality is that our cities here in Australia are still very poor at managing water, and there is so much to be done in terms of regulation and governance to create water sensitive cities. One striking feature and focus of this conference has been wicked problems and the challenge of  driving change in a complex sociopolitical environment.

World Economic Forum Water Report

The World Economic Forum recently released a draft report on the world’s water supply situation. It is pretty grim reading, with the focus being on the water-food nexus and the water-energy nexus.  There are plenty of indicators in here of where water businesses should be focusing their efforts though.

If you look at the water inputs to produce the amount of food consumed by people on certain income levels, then extrapolate according to income/population growth forecasts, then you find we don’t have close to enough water to produce the food we will need. In fact by 2025 30% of the global cereal crop could be lost through lack of water.

Energy production is also highly dependent on water supply for cooling power stations and in some parts of the world this has already become a limiting factor.

Finally there is the demand for water for cities, which are rapidly drawing down  water available in their catchments.

In this post I try and focus on opportunities, rather than dwell on the negative, and this is where there seems to be an obvious role for business.

Food: Irrigation efficiency is an obvious target, with around 50% of water drawn for irrigation being lost to leaks and evaporation. Demand for pipes should continue! Innovative irrigation systems and low water consumption crops will be another growth area.

Energy: There has to be a market for retrofitting power stations with non-consumptive cooling systems. I have seen a presentation on this, and while it is expensive, it is possible to replace evaporative systems with closed-system cooling. It looks a bit tricky though, so the engineering firm that takes the first-movers advantage in this area should do well. Of course wind-power has almost zero water consumption, which is great, but I would not be putting my money into hydro in many places. Australia’s hydro power schemes have already reduced output due to lack of water.

Cities: As well as the obvious desalination and blackwater reuse option, which is becoming cheaper and more energy efficient every day (particularly with Forward Osmosis on the way), increasing water prices may begin to make stormwater capture, treatment and reuse cost effective in more locations. There is already a big shortage of professionals with experience and knowledge of ecological engineering that is required to do this well however. Increasing pollution levels also mean that innovative advanced treatment solutions should also gain ground.

The mega-trend will be the movement of populations, agriculture and business to areas with good water security, so set up your water supply businesses there!

Vertical disaggregation of water and wastewater management in SEQ

South East Queensland ran out of water recently, triggering a multi-billion dollar infrastructure program, but also some serious governance reform. Concerned that the current model, with 25 different providers of water and wastewater services, was not even delivering water security, the state government seized control.

The management of water and sewer was taken from the local government councils in the area, and given to a number of new regional level entities created by the state government. The engineered part of the water cycle was divided into a number of sections, and a different authority given responsibility for each section.

There are now two “Bulk Supply” entities, responsible for maintaining water sources (dams, groundwater supply etc.) and water and wastewater treatment plants in the two catchments. There is a bulk transport authority, that is responsible for maintaining and operating large regional pipelines. A water-grid manager, that contracts between the different parties and takes ownership of regional water security, does not own any assets. A water and sewer reticulation business is responsible for the reticulation for the region, and three retailers will take care of the customer end. Local government will retain responsibility for stormwater management.

This looks like an attractive model for the State government. Water resources would be managed at catchment level, specialised agencies would be more efficient in accomplishing their core task. The natural monopoly elements (bulk supply and reticulation) are seperated out and given to state authorities, making room for new market entrants in supply and retail.

My question is, is how does a more decentralised, local water and wastewater management fit within this picture. Can councils feed stormwater back into the system?