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Opinion: Now is the time to focus on long-term water security solutions

Floods, bushfires, drought and a pandemic are all on the agenda in Australia and across the globe. It seems the world we live in has changed, and so too should the propensity to plan critical infrastructure reactively, writes Bob Tilbury, SMEC Market Director of Water and Dams and Environment and Waste.

Whilst COVID-19 is throwing new challenges at us, we cannot forget that just before the pandemic hit, Australia was ravaged by bushfires after years of drought. Thankfully, since then, some regions of Australia have seen much needed rainfall, but for many others the drought has not broken. 

It has been confronting to see reports of towns trucking water in, or pipelines built in haste as communities find they no longer have access to safe water – a basic requirement of life. It was devastating to see what little water these communities had left to save homes and businesses from fire. 

But we can do better. Effective, reliable, long-term water resource planning is vital to Australia’s future. Reactive emergency responses are not the best option when it comes to secure water supply. Now is the time to reflect and plan. We need to ask if some of the water issues we’re facing could have been avoided if we had been better prepared.

Australia must become more water resilient. I appreciate resilience is a word that gets overused; however, it is essential to understand that for several reasons, from climate change to pandemics, we are beginning to see the vulnerability of our long-term water supply. 

How do we become water resilient?

There’s a saying: prepare for the worst and hope for the best. While I’m not suggesting we could have predicted the compounding scale of recent crises, I doubt anyone will disagree that we could have been better prepared.

We should focus on planning now, because the timescale to deliver major water infrastructure can be anywhere from two to 10 years. 

While many of our water authorities have invested in long-term planning, those plans remain exposed to short-term economic and political influences. 

For example, if we consider recent droughts, infrastructure investment was planned for when drought trigger points were reached. But seemingly inevitably, when we push the button on those projects, it rains. Even now, we see drought-resilience projects stopped. In 10 years or less, will we be in the same position again?  

An example of proactive planning is the Gold Coast Desalination Plant. The Millennium Drought broke in South East Queensland just as it was completed, and the plant was put into stand-by mode. At the time, the project was perceived as a waste of money by some groups. But fast forward to the recent floods and droughts, and this asset has played a critical role in maintaining water supply across the region. 

I’m aware this is just one example. There is a limit to funding and priorities change, but we need a more strategic long-term view across a multi-electoral cycle that is not politicised if Australia is to become more resilient when the next drought occurs.

This is where organisations like Infrastructure Australia are already playing a vital and independent role in prioritising investment. They take a long-term view, focusing on strategically delivering crucial elements of infrastructure.

Proving the business case is key

It is easy to silo solutions to building our water resilience, rather than affording the time and rigour to examine the available options independently. As engineers and scientists, our role is to look at the opportunities, risks and evidence-based thinking to develop robust business cases that help inform decision making. 

Demonstrating an evidence-based business case, and seeking community and stakeholder involvement and acceptance, is crucial to our water security going forward.

Through community engagement, environmental planning and a clearly articulated social license to deliver, there is an opportunity to prove the business case for major water infrastructure projects, as a part of the overall solution to developing water resilience in Australia. 

Part of this process involves considering the economic value of a resilient water resources network for our communities. Australia is a huge continent, with population centres separated by thousands of kilometres. This presents challenges in meeting our cities’ demand for water through cost-effective and efficient supply. The same is true for our regional areas, which not only rely on water for drinking, but also irrigation, industrial use and stock water. 

Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit found the “urban water sector faces challenges, including the impacts of climate change, population growth, ageing assets and changing needs and expectations from users. Failure to adequately address these challenges could lead to rising water bills, as well as exposing users to risks of declining service quality and reliability”.  

Keeping Australia running and supporting its growth means relying on safe, secure and reliable bulk water sources. It means improving our water distribution networks and using supplementary assets like desalination and recycled water as needed. 

Results of proving the business case

As a more recent example of forward planning, SMEC was recently appointed by WaterNSW to support the technical delivery of the Dungowan and Mole River Dam projects, along with our partners at EMM Consulting. 

Both projects have been fast-tracked as critical infrastructure to improve water security and flood resilience.

The Dungowan Dam project scope includes the replacement of the current dam with a larger dam that will significantly improve water availability and security for the Peel Valley, which includes the city of Tamworth and its surrounding townships. 

This project has been highly anticipated by the local community in this drought affected region. 

Mole River Dam, located in the Border Rivers catchment on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, is also expected to increase water security for the community, agriculture and the environment. 

Projects like these will go a long way to securing our future, but ongoing water security, including the robust consideration of bulk water supply, is needed across Australia – and quickly. Now is the time to plan and prepare so we can make the right decisions about our future.