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How climate change will turn up the heat on the water sector

As the world starts to transform its habits and expectations under a changing climate, preparation for complex and unforeseen dynamics will be a crucial element of adaptation for the water sector, writes David Barbeler.

A hotter climate, an increased population, and greater expectations on water managers to do more with less; that’s the three-pronged reality for the water sector as we move into the decades ahead.

According to Productivity Commissioner Dr Jane Doolan, it’s crucial the water sector begins to adapt to these pressures and demands right now.

“If we look at the future pressures, climate change is a very significant one but it’s not the only one. It will be combined with population growth, and affordability pressure from communities,” Doolan said.

“So there will be more people, potentially less water in many areas of Australia, and those communities are starting to have greater expectations and greater demands from their water managers. They’ll expect water managers to do more with less.”

The heat is on

By 2030, the annually averaged warming across all emission scenarios is projected to be somewhere around 0.5 to 1.4°C above the climate of 1986–2005.

And as the decades continue to roll by, Australia will only become hotter – with models showing up to a 5°C increase in many areas by 2090 under a high emission scenario. However, other models suggest warming could be limited to 1.2°C under an intermediate emission scenario.

This poses a problem for many in the water industry: what climate modelling scenario should the water sector plan for?

“Dealing with uncertainty and highly complex science is another challenge,” explained Seqwater Principal Policy Officer – Sustainability and Advocacy Emma O’Neill.

“Infrastructure decisions demand certainty but we don’t know how severe the future changes to the climate will be. This requires consideration of multiple scenarios and adaptive management approaches.”

Sydney Water Corporation's Luther Uthayakumaran agrees: “The challenge is that a lot of the climate models point to very different scenarios.

“For instance if we have 10 different models, they could point to very different temperatures and extremes. When that happens the range is so high that it becomes hard to make a planning decision based on it.”

Key challenges

O’Neill said another big challenge is that science and climate change have become politicised.

However, as temperatures continue to soar – 2018 was Australia’s third-warmest year on record, and only one of Australia’s warmest 10 years occurred before 2005 – more and more people are once again embracing the need to plan for climate change.

“In some cases people have an entrenched belief or scepticism about climate change that needs to be understood and overcome before progress can be made,” O’Neill said.

“However, it seems like climate change has become a frequent area of public discussion as the observed impacts become unequivocal. This has helped to make sure the issue can stay on the agenda and overcome the potential for scepticism to derail thinking about adaptation.”

Uthayakumaran, who presented at Ozwater’19 on climate change and water demand, said another key challenge for the water sector will be reducing people’s demand for water.

“We need to change people’s behaviour in the way they use different quantities of water – that’s something we’re trying to grapple with at the moment,” Uthayakumaran said.

“Because at the moment, the day to day variations of demand is driven by the weather – that’s actually the biggest factor. And climate change impacts weather, so therefore it is very important.”

Another key challenge is the impact climate change is having on infrastructure, said Uthayakumaran: “The infrastructure was built with climate conditions of the past that were different.”

So how is the water sector meeting challenges of climate variability at a policy and regulation level?

O’Neill believes policy is increasingly recognising the challenges of climate change for water supply.

“For example, the Queensland Government’s Bulk Water Opportunities Statement recognises the broad challenge of climate change for water supply,” she said.

Uthayakumaran pointed out that there are increasing requirements on organisations to include climate-risk as part of their enterprise risk profiles. This applies to water organisations as well.

Go west

One Australian city leading the way in adapting to a changing climate is Perth, said Synergies Economic Consulting Martin van Bueren. The city has experienced a significant drop in average rainfall over the past 45 years, relative to pre-1975 levels.

Perth has experienced a significant drop in average rainfall over the past 45 years.

“Out of necessity, the WA water sector has already embraced adaptive management for a changing climate and major changes have been made to water supply sources,” said van Bueren.

“Here in Perth, the Water Corporation has invested heavily in desalination and wastewater recycling. Perth is now getting around 50% of its water supply from desalination, and this share, in combination with groundwater replenishment using recycled water, will continue to grow.”

Opportunities

“There are opportunities for the water sector to work collaboratively with others across the urban water cycle to help make sure building adaptation and resilience happens collaboratively and efficiently,” O’Neill said.

“For example, Seqwater will be looking to engage more closely with local water service providers to make sure we are working together to understand adaptation needs.”

Van Bueren said as pressure is placed upon our supply systems, technological solutions will evolve in water resource management.

“New pressures often breed new ideas. And the free flow of information between the major water utilities and other players in the water sector will be important if we are to generate more innovative ideas,” he said.

Another opportunity, added van Bueren, was to build on Australia’s reputation as a world leader in water services technology, and export this knowledge abroad.

“Australia is also well regarded as an international leader in water policy reform and development of water markets. There’s an opportunity in selling this know-how overseas and building a services industry off the back of this experience,” van Bueren said.

The next generation

There have been 25 years of national water reform through COAG, and out of that has come the National Water Initiative where lots of progress has been made.

However, Doolan warned that there has been some “backsliding” in recent years, and it’s time for the next generation of water managers to step up and take charge.

“The generation of water managers who were involved in that whole reform agenda really understood the main issues. But they’re all retiring and moving on, and that includes some of the politicians as well,” Doolan said.

As such, one of the recommendations in the Productivity Commission’s 2017 National Water Reform final report was that all COAG governments commit to a new National Water Initiative.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t lose the key foundations that we’ve spent 25 years building. And then we’ve got to build on it again for the future,” Doolan said.

First published as 'Turning up the heat' in Current magazine April 2019.