Water running through hands

Insights from contemporary public health studies in Victoria
F Pamminger
Publication Date (Web): 7 November 2017
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21139/wej.2017.036

The water industry has always had a strong focus on health and wellbeing, but we have few effective ways to measure our contribution in this area. The industry made a large contribution to health and wellbeing around 100 years ago, when sewers and reticulated water systems were first constructed. However, the impact that the water industry’s day-to-day decisions have on health and wellbeing in 2017 remains unclear.

The public health industry measures health and wellbeing in life expectancy and disability-free life years. By measuring these figures across Victoria, we can see a seven-year difference in life expectancy between the most- and least-privileged municipalities and a seventeen-year difference in disability-free life years. This translates into an economic burden to Victoria of between $3 billion and $5 billion a year.

In addition to these large social and economic impacts, public health experts estimate that approximately 1,500 deaths occurring in Victoria each year are avoidable. This is a catastrophic public health crisis that warrants urgent action from us all. When relative populations are considered, the magnitude is like the crisis Victoria faced in the 1890s, when the state suffered 400 deaths a year from typhoid – a serious public health issue that was also recognised as avoidable.

In the 1890s the water industry’s role was clear – construct sewers. But today, our role is much less obvious.

By unbundling the differences in health and wellbeing between municipal regions, public health experts have found that the largest determinants to health and wellbeing are socio-economic (40%), behavioural (30%), clinical (20%) and the physical environment (10%). These insights open up a range of diverse ways that the water industry can potentially contribute to health and wellbeing. They move us from thinking about just providing safe water and sanitation services to considering aspects such as our vulnerability programs, education programs and role in encouraging more people to replace sugary drinks with water.

But to translate intent into concrete, justifiable actions, we need a way to measure the material contribution to health and wellbeing of different projects and stakeholders. Yarra Valley Water is currently piloting a new approach to measuring its contributions to health and wellbeing by quantifying social impacts in financial terms – an emerging discipline known as integrated profit and loss (IP&L). The methodology produces insights that help us prioritise our efforts to maximise social value beyond the traditional business case, particularly as this value relates to health and wellbeing.

We believe that history will regard our era as one that produced a step change in public health of equal magnitude to the eradication of communicable diseases 100 years ago. But to get there, we need to improve how we assess our contribution to health and wellbeing, and translate this into day-to-day decisions that maximise the outcomes for our customers and communities.


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