Anticipatory water governance key to sustainable infrastructure

Posted 8 November

Expensive reactive decisions like building desalination plants could be avoided by using an anticipatory water governance approach, an international expert has said.

KWR Watercycle Research's Andrew Segrave said by not taking an anticipatory approach, reactive and short-sighted decisions were made to install desalination plants around the country.

Segrave said speculation surrounding the poorly timed execution of the Wonthaggi desalination plant holds some merit. 

“Ironically, the drought broke and there were floods during the construction phase of these plants,” he said.

“The plants themselves represent an enormous infrastructural investment based on predictive planning, they limit flexibility in the future and they epitomise a fragmented techno-centric solution; shifting the problem from the water sector to the energy sector and indirectly to climate change (the Wonthaggi plant uses about 90MW of electricity to operate).”

In a recent paper, Segrave and his colleagues have argued the historical approach to water governance has been 'command and control' and has failed on several fronts.

“[It is] (i) fragmented across geographic, sectoral, administrative, institutional, and disciplinary boundaries; (ii) exclusive, with a technocratic, top-down management style side-lining some stakeholders, (iii) inflexible due to massive infrastructural investments being made using predictive planning; and (iv) reactive as a result of overcompensation for inflexibility,” the report states. 

In the context of Australia's response to the Millennium Drought, Segrave said: “I would argue that each of these four shortcomings were present.”

As a result he advocates an anticipatory water governance approach. Although the concept has been around for a number of years, it has been hard to put into practice, which is why Segrave has helped developed a model to operationalise it.

“People who work at utilities often have a background in engineering, where the emphasis is on finding a [technical] solution,” he said.

“Anticipatory water governance requires changing the dominant practices, and that is a difficult thing to do.

“The concepts are also a bit complicated, which is why we are working to simplify them and translate them into practical processes that strategists and decision makers can implement.”

Implementing the approach could help improve outcomes in numerous ways, Segrave said.

“The processes are more integrated and participatory and the strategists/decision makers find a balance between adapting and anticipating,” he said.

“If they manage to find this balance then the outcomes should be less short-sighted/reactive, fragmented, inflexible, for example a massive piece of infrastructure that will take decades to pay off and cause [a large] increase in water bills.”

The newly developed model aims to translate the relevant theoretical concepts into a process with practical steps.