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Future vision: How water utilities can plan for an uncertain future

To better prepare for an “unknowable future”, water utilities should adopt scenario planning and adaptive planning approaches, a recent GHD and Melbourne Water project has recommended.

GHD Service Line Leader for Integrated Water Management Ryan Brotchie recently co-authored a study analysing best-practice planning practices at Melbourne Water, Australia and around the globe.

“We started with the premise that when we're planning for 50 years into the future, it's quite likely that the future is so uncertain that it is unknowable,” said Brotchie.

“Our work identified that some of the planning in the Victorian water industry over the past five years had a gap.

“Most of the long-term planning tended to plan for a single future: a certain set of assumptions around climate change, population, land use, environmental standards, community expectations, levels of service, technological change, etc.”

Analysis of 11 case studies – from Melbourne Water and Sydney Water to utilities and organisations in the US, UK and the Netherlands – showed how utilities can envision multiple plausible futures and then test potential strategies and plans against each of these scenarios.

Brotchie said planning for a single future could be flawed.

“The risk is that we're locking ourselves into a pathway without the ability to adapt as the future unfolds … this can result in either under- or over-investment in our natural and built systems,” he said.

“For example, if our assumptions about climate change, population growth, etc. do not eventuate, this can lead to building of assets with too much capacity too soon, or with enough capacity or even under capacity but without the flexibility to easily augment if required.”

Consequently, the project concluded that a combination of scenario planning and adaptive pathway planning was the best-practice approach to inform long-term decision making on water resources, water supply and sewerage systems, catchment and waterway management and flood management.

At the upcoming Ozwater’17, Brotchie will share project learnings on the most successful ways of implementing these approaches.

He said scenarios could enhance the planning process by drawing out the key strategic issues and challenges.

“Involving people from a range of backgrounds and organisations in scenario development is an important factor in capturing a broad range of influences that may not otherwise be considered,” he wrote in an abstract of presentation 'Planning for Uncertainty for Water Cycle Services'.

“This should be combined with a strong focus on articulating exactly how the bigger picture scenarios will impact the management or provision of a given service – a good example of this was the Melbourne Metropolitan Sewerage Strategy undertaken in 2009.

“Adaptive pathways planning is an emerging approach pioneered in the Netherlands and the UK that allows you to change from one path – a set of solutions or responses – to another as the future unfolds. It should lead to strategies that are robust because options are tested against multiple plausible futures, and flexible because a diverse array of options have been considered and evaluated to avoid ‘lock-in’ and to inform future decision making.”

To learn more about planning for uncertainty, register here for Ozwater’17.