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Understand risk to strengthen the sector

The water sector is changing fast and bringing an array of new challenges to utilities and companies. The 2021 Water Professional of the Year Annette Davison talks about understanding risk, and why it’s a crucial step in strengthening the sector.

Dr Davison’s career in water started in 1988, when she arrived in Australia to work in environmental contamination for Rio Tinto, an experience that led to completing a PhD and then a Master's in environmental and local government law.

“That whetted my appetite for the importance of risk management in corporate governance. After that, I was fortunate enough to get a job with Sydney Water and that's where I started working in risk assessment,” Davison said.

After a stint in industry, Davison decided to go into private practice. After working in water cycle risk assessment, Davison found herself drawn to corporate governance risk, and founded her own company, Risk Edge, in 2010.

“I help a whole range of people and companies in quite diverse areas. I've worked for an ASX listed stem cell company. I've been approached by renewable energy companies. I've worked for local government, corporations and public utilities,” Davison said.

Davison said understanding risk is the backbone of any business, not just in the water sector.

“But, for water, it really means understanding the impact of uncertainty on objectives like public health, asset management, levels of service for customers, and also environmental compliance,” she said.

“The sector is so diverse these days. Water utilities manage a whole range of different products. It can be recycled water, storm water, drinking water, sewage, and customer management as well.

“Understanding the risks to a successful business is really important for a water utility to get right. Without fully understanding the system that they operate in – the context, the products, the services, the performance, the stakeholders – then you're not going to get it right.”

Davison said, when beginning a risk assessment, starting at the very beginning provides a lot more insight into risk than you’d think.

“Understanding the operating context, and taking a close look at what the client actually does, provides them with a massive amount of information,” she said.

“Often there are things they haven't realised they're doing, or there are some things that different business units are doing that they shouldn't be doing. Getting that insight upfront is a really important step in any risk assessment.

“The old saying rings true: garbage in, garbage out. If you don't get the right information to put into your risk assessment, you're not going to get the right information out.”

Understanding risk in the water sector has helped create more resilience by managing all aspects along the supply chain and not just relying on end point testing, and has provided a more robust approach to public health and customer protection, Davison said.

Davison has turned her attention to producing free access articles on risk management, which are housed on the Risk Edge and D2K Information websites, and has recently written a book on the subject, too.

“I'm really passionate about training and helping create water quality awareness. I've been developing a brand called RiskReady. We've now got a series of online courses available, which have been designed to help people become risk ready in their water sector roles,” she said.

“One of the things I've witnessed over the years is how water utilities are moving to digital systems. This transition has put a lot of stress on water utilities, in terms of understanding what data collection actually means for improved risk management.

“With D2K Information, we're aiming to help utilities supercharge their data through practitioner designed and developed software modules. One of the modules is called AuditWatch. I've actually been using that myself in my Risk Edge business and I love it.

“I'm really looking forward to seeing increased use of smart water analysis software in the water sector.”

Despite her achievements, and having established herself as a leader within the risk management space, Davison said she’s still dedicated to giving more to the industry.

“I still have an element of imposter syndrome. When my name was read out at the Australian Water Awards ceremony, it really was a massive shock. I know I've achieved a lot, but if we're all honest, there's really a little bit of that imposter syndrome in all of us,” she said.

“I'm very honoured and humbled to be named the Water Professional of the Year, especially given the astronomical calibre of the finalists. It's up to me to use the title for good and give back to the sector, too.

“I intend to do that by helping to improve the lot of young water professionals in particular and also to improve community awareness of the importance of water.”