Urban water sustainability in Australia

Water sensitive urban design from UniSA's Mawson Lakes Campus in South Australia. Source.

Water sensitive urban design from UniSA’s Mawson Lakes Campus in South Australia. Source.

Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney all feature prominently in the lists of the world’s most livable cities. Excellent infrastructure is a large part of why Australian cities are ranked so highly for their standard of living. But there is a threat emerging. With more people comes more demand for water and water sustainability is fast becoming an issue at current growth rates.

However the outlook is not bleak, be alert but not alarmed we suppose. Key institutions like the CSIRO are currently working to maintain urban water security in Australia. Research into urban water technologies, sustainable water systems and urban water futures are all a part of the CSIRO’s urban water theme. The research aims to secure water services to increase sustainability of Australian city water supplies and thus provide significant economic and living standard benefits.

It is crucial that Australian cities innovate and continue to improve their water technology and infrastructure. Urban water technology and infrastructure needs to focus on reducing the amount of energy (power & electricity) that is used to treat water and how to source water as close to the end users as possible (this reduces energy used in pumping stations).

Development of sustainable water systems often suffers from cyclical setbacks in Australia due to climate and weather. Often Australia is affected by a long drought. With a lack of consistent rainfall Australian’s start to panic about water security and huge political and commercial will is generated to further the cause of water sustainability. This will power is lost however when the drought breaks. Very heavy rainfall and immense floods often follow the break in the drought. Very heavy rainfall combined with dry soils causes severe inundation in many Australian towns and cities. It is hard to talk about conserving water when your very own house is 1m deep in river water. This cycle of drought and flood creates a stop start kind of mentality to water security research and development. This stop start mentality reduces technological progress and funding dries up (pardon the pun) and households no longer feel the need to be water security conscious so widespread adoption of new technology is stymied. Long-term government and commercial thinking and partnership are required to make meaningful and significant gains in Australian urban water systems.

Another hurdle that must be leaped to maintain Australian city water security is the differences between each city. The major capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin, Hobart and Canberra all have unique geographical and climatic challenges. The demographics of populations within each city are also varied and unique. Water systems suitable for Darwin will not likely be suitable (either in efficacy, efficiency or cost) for a city such as Melbourne. Scale and density is also variable with more inner city Melbourne compared to western Sydney urban sprawl.  This likely means research and development successes and breakthroughs is limited in their application and reach. R&D must then be targeted and consider the specifics of geography, climate and population to be efficient and effective.

With a bit of grit, determination and luck Australia will continue to be the lucky country when it comes to water and the standard of living.