Brine management a major growth area

There is a great article here on the growth of the Coal Seam Gas industry in Australia. It is anticipated that 300,000 megalitres of highly saline water will be extracted every year from CSG bores in Australia, and the search for ways to manage that water continues.

This is not just about mining though. As fresh water becomes more scarce globally, inland farmers and communities around the world will increasingly turn to desalination to make use of higher and higher salinity water.

Along with inland desalination comes the question of brine management. How do you deal with all that high-salinity water? H2Otalent is already starting to see the growth of the brine management industry reflected in the positions we are recruiting for.

Watch this space.

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.

Decentralised solutions gaining momentum

In a small suburban development on the far western outskirts of Sydney’s urban sprawl, the city’s first suburb-wide, privately owned decentralised wastewater reuse scheme is about to start construction. The development is Vermont, in Pitt Town.

The privately-run scheme will collect sewerage from 900 houses and deliver third-pipe recycled water back to the same homes for a slightly lower price than the state-owned utility currently provides drinking water. The scheme will operate under a new regulatory frame-work specifically designed to encourage new market entrants, and I would imagine that it could be highly profitable, given that they will be collecting sewerage rates on top of the price of the recycled water but only have to run one plant. I suspect that the cost of constructing and maintaining a third-pipe is not dramatically higher than maintaining two.

No doubt the recycled water will be plumbed directly into the toilets and gardens of the homes before purchase, so they have a captive market.

Small scale reuse schemes seem likely eat away at the market of major utilities by providing decentralised solutions to outlying suburbs and small communities. The major utilities are vulnerable in the locations where pumping distance and geography erode the efficiencies of large centralised plants.

 If the population ever accepts recycled sewerage as potable water then the decentralised business model becomes dramatically more compelling. If you can bundle in stormwater harvesting then you are really talking.

It seems to me that if the major utility business are able to create divisions that specialise in operating and maintaining decentralised schemes, then there is no need for them to lose that market share to smaller players. For better or worse I think that they are unlikely to do this. Large utilities tend to be big, lumbering, heavily unionised beasts that are impossible to steer and which crush innovation.

A smart utility executive interested in entering a more lightly regulated market might see an opportunity to create a 100% owned subsidiary with a separate management structure to target these potentially highly profitable opportunities. It would require a far less hierarchical management approach and very lean and very smart operations. They will need to select executives and management who know water and sewer well, but who also have an entreprenurial mind-set and the ability to rapidly innovate.

If they don’t, then they can kiss that market share goodbye.

The Next Big Thing

I am confident now that the Next Big Thing in water in Australia will be urban stormwater harvesting for potable water supply.

 Why do I think this?

We recently heard here that our population is forecast to almost double in the next 40 years. Australia’s most densely populated south east corner has already experienced dramatic falls in average rainfall, and this is expected to worsen with climate change. Perth has already experienced this .

Meeting the water demands of population growth with declining rainfall will require every water supply and demand management option available.

Desalination will of course remain a growth area in spite of its challenges, but the big desal boom is already well underway and the market is already highly competitive. Potable  Reuse faces such high levels of societal pushback that it is politically very tricky.

As we have seen in Perth, conventional catchments experience dramatic falls in yield under climate-change conditions. Because of increased evapotranspiration and drying soils, the reduction in run-off far exceeds the fall in rainfall. Much less water gets to dams. Also our dams tend to be 100kms or so inland, and those catchments are very vulnerable to geographical shifts in rainfall patterns.

Our major cities however are all immediately next to the ocean, and get reliable rainfall. Urban impermeable surfaces are not effected by the evapotranspiration and dry soils effects, so urban water harvesting is a climate-change resilient option for water supply.

For the past 10 years or so, capacity to deliver stormwater harvesting solutions has been increasing, and Australia’s first potable stormwater harvesting scheme was commissioned last year in Orange, NSW, last year.

Delivering urban stormwater harvesting solutions requires water providers to go far outside their traditional scope. The only way to make it cheap and effective is to build your urban area around water sensitive urban design principles. This means that everyone has to get involved, from the urban planning phase onward.

If you are going to be involved in the Next Big Thing, how will you respond to the challenge of stormwater harvesting and WSUD?

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!

Step Change: next decade’s key concept?

We already know that in natural systems of all kinds change happens in big jumps. Systems tend to be resilient to change up to a point, but when pushed to a certain limit, a dramatic change occurs and the system enters a new state; a step change occurs.

Step Change in Perth Inflows

Step Change in Perth Inflows

The general public in Australia is quite familiar with step change. The water utility in Western Australia, Water Corporation had always looked at long term average inflows when doing their supply planning. This had always worked well, until their rainfall took two dramatic steps down, with an even more dramatic fall in inflows. The reduction was not gradual…rainfall patterns changed overnight.

Other major capital cities in Australia have had similar experiences, requiring something like 10 billion dollars worth of infrastructure in the form of desalination plants, reuse plants and pipelines to secure water supplies for major cities.

Global climate change promises to follow a similar pattern. It won’t be long until step change is the phrase on everyone’s lips.

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!