Sydney city recycled water network to employ ASR

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the City of Sydney plans to utilise an aquifer to the south of the city for storage in the operation of a city-wide non-potable water network. The network will be integrated with a  decentralised trigeneration  network.

The most interesting thing about this is that the corporatised water utility Sydney Water provides water and wastewater services to Sydney City, and the City of Sydney local government entity has no experience with operating water and wastewater systems. In fact the terms of the original design tender specified that the system should be able to constructed under a PPP arrangement, where presumably a private entity will operate the system.

This will be complicated from a governance perspective, let alone an engineering one, and I will be watching progress with interest. The introduction of the aquifer storage solution introduces a lot of additional complexity from an environmental perspective. 

Certainly if it gets off the ground, this will be a project of sufficient size to be well and truly on the global water radar, and the global water majors will be interested. I wonder who will have the capability and the appetite to take on the risk profile of a large unconventional system like this one?

Water Leadership – the H2Otalent doctrine

The global water industry is going through a transition. A transition from  an industry focused on the incremental improvement of a century-old water management paradigm, to an adaptive industry that can manage the rapid and dramatic changes occuring  in climate, technology and society.

Incremental improvement and rapid adaption require very different leadership approaches, and this has created  a leadership deficit throughout the industry.

This is complicated by the fact that water management is one of the most challenging wicked problems we face. It has more stakeholders than any other industry, making for a highly complex socio-enviro-political environment. It intersects pretty much every human endeavour, meaning to optimise water management at a society/ecology-wide level is a task of extreme complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

Leadership is this kind of environment is really as hard as it gets.

In this post I am putting forward a universal model for leadership in the water sector. This is based on H2Otalent’s experience recruiting across the sector, as well as the latest thought on leadership in complex systems. I would love to get readers views on this set of leadership qualities/strategies as this is just one step of an iterative process.

Leaders need not be managers, and leadership can be displayed at all levels of organizations, as well as outside organizational structures. Leadership is also much more about what you do than who you are.

1. Self-Aware
Having a good understanding of ones self is absolutely the most critical leadership skill. If you don’t know your own strengths and weaknesses, and your own biases and tendencies, you will never be able to lead effectively because you will not be able to manage yourself. Self-awareness naturally leads to an understanding of others.

2. Internal locus of control

Individuals with an internal locus of control fundamentally believe that they can influence outcomes (rather than being the victims of circumstance), and are willing to take responsibility for outcomes.

3. Visionary
In a changing environment leaders must drive for change, and that requires clarity, a big-picture perspective, and a vision of what can be.

4. Authentic
People will follow you if they believe what you believe. Leaders must take a position and be true to their values

5. Enabling
Leaders must empower others to act. You can achieve nothing on your own. This requires giving authority and control to others, not just delegating tasks.

6. Emergent
While leaders must provide vision and values, in complex environments it is better to allow solutions and tactics to emerge in a bottom-up way rather than take a hierarchical directive approach. In complex environments undergoing rapid change, there is no way that one person can always know the right course of action. It is the leaders responsibility to create an environment where this is possible, and let go of certainty over outcomes.

7. Experimenting

Complex system environments are non-deterministic, so planning and forecasting are often doomed to fail. The best way to test ideas is by trying them, and trying lots of them.  Leaders must provide an environment where early stage failure is encouraged, so that major failures can be avoided.

8. Disruptive

Continuous adaption to a changing environment is much more desirable than the step-change phenomenon that tends to occur in natural systems when a system is pushed beyond its level of resilience by external change and collapses. Leaders need to be able to continue disrupt the status quo to provide room for change


Powerful leaders have the ability to consider a choice of two or more undesirable alternatives, reject both and find a third previously non-existent path which combines the positives of both.

Readers, tell me why I am wrong and where I am right on this list of key leadership qualities/approaches. Different parts of the industry will have radically different perspectives, so I am keen to hear them.

Water management crisis – victims of our own success

Watching a video on Circle of Blue recently, one comment jumped out at me.

Paul Reiter, Executive Director of the IWA made the point that in industrialised countries, engineers have been so successful in solving two of the main water issues (providing potable water to the home and removing wastewater from the home), that water is no longer front-of-mind for most people; in fact it is completely taken for granted.

In countries without these sophisticated and costly engineering solutions, water and sanitation management is time consuming, and often takes much of their time and energy.

Removing water and sanitation from urban people’s conciousness has had serious repercussions.

Firstly they abuse the service because they are not stakeholders in its management, they are simply end-users who bear little or no cost of that abuse. They now believe it is their right to have unlimited potable water come out of the tap at their house.

During the water supply crisis in Brisbane, Australia, people were temporarily prepared to cut back their use, tolerate large expenditure on infrastructure, and support innovative solutions like planned potable reuse, but as soon as the immediate crisis was over they returned to the passive user role, demanding water on their terms.

Successful water managers are going to have to somehow get the community to participate in planning decisions. This will involve getting through to people that getting hundreds of  litres of  potable water piped to their house everyday is actually a massive challenge, which has been accomplished to-date at significant economic, environmental and social cost. If they want to continue getting this service in a changing climate they are going to have to make compromises, and pay more!

Leadership in uncertain times

The water sector is in transition. For almost 100 years urban water managers were concerned almost purely with three major issues.

1. Delivering a reliable and clean potable water supply at minimum cost

2. Moving wastewater away from population centres

3. Moving floodwater away from population centres

Risk was the enemy and a static highly centralised, controlling management approach was employed.

Now much of the world is facing water supply pressure, and climatic variability is increasing, making for planning uncertainty. Technology is changing rapidly. The population is much better informed so everyone is a stakeholder, and  we cannot afford the ecological consequences of a pipe-bound, one-way water “cycle”.

Centralised, highly-controlling management cannot deal with rapid change and the new complexities of water management.

I read an interesting paper over the weekend on 10 qualities required of a modern leader, working in a changing and complex environment. This list comes from Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an uncertain world by Bob Johansen, and I think it is highly relevent to the water sector.

  1. Building skills: Can you build and grow things while connecting with others?
  2. Clarity: Do you see through contradictions to a clear vision?
  3. Dilemma flipping: Are you able to turn dilemmas into opportunities?
  4. Immersive learning: Can you immerse yourself in unfamiliar environments and learn from them?
  5. Quiet transparency: Are you open and authentic without advertising yourself?
  6. Bio-empathy: Do you see things from nature’s point of view, learning from natural patterns?
  7. Constructive depolarizing: Can you calm tense situations and bring together people from divergent cultures?
  8. Rapid prototyping: Do you learn from early setbacks and fail in interesting ways?
  9. Smart mob organizing: Can you create social change networks through electronic media?
  10. Commons creating: Are you a collaborator, nurturing shared assets that benefit other parties?

Water sustainability – where are the jobs?

It has begun. Government money is starting to flow into water sustainability here in Australia, and we are starting to see the emergence of real jobs in the area.

Because water has so many aspects, and any kind of water resource has a gazillion stakeholders, water sustainability is inherently a cross-disciplinary pursuit. You must cross-over the natural and engineered water-cycles and hence have a working knowledge of both hydrology/hydrogeology and civil/chemical engineering. You have to know behavioural science, economics and finance, advanced project management techniques, water science and urban planning.

I already have job opportunities for these people, so if you are one then get in touch!