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World Water Day: A catalyst for change

As Australia celebrates World Water Day, the second held in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the nation must examine not only its response to the virus and the change needed in thinking about our water supplies but also the country’s role in ensuring the region’s water security.

University of New South Wales Professor Stuart Khan

Australia has sometimes been viewed as having short-term thinking when it comes to sustainable water management.

The University of New South Wales Professor Stuart Khan says the value of water has historically been unrecognised until a crisis — such as the COVID-19 pandemic or a drought — occurs, and World Water Day is a great time to re-evaluate thinking around water management.

“In terms of looking at sustainable water supply, such as cities running short during droughts, Aussies have short memories,” he said.

“When it happens, it is front of mind and everyone is looking for solutions — solutions that may that take decades to enact — but as soon as urgency goes away and the hardship is over we tend to deprioritise and forget.

“So now is a great day to drum into all Australians that long term sustainable water management is something we need to prioritise, it’s something that needs constant planning to shore up supplies when things can change quickly.”

Khan highlighted the need for resilient systems to meet Australia’s changing needs.

“It’s more than just a buzzword," he said. "These systems have some degree of redundancy built into them to allow them to continue operating under stressful conditions; the pandemic has shown just how necessary this is.”

The pandemic taught the water industry the importance of preparation and cross-training of workers as a way to develop in-built redundancies across the sector.

He added that this long-term view should be extended to all of Australia, beyond the cities, to remote areas that still lack access to consistent potable water and effective sanitation.

“On World Water Day, we should recognise that Australia still has gaps in our water supply and sanitation; there are parts of Australia where reliable safe drinking water is not something that can be taken for granted — particularly in remote communities,” Khan said.

This is most recently evident in Tasmania, where a state-wide program was required to lift Do Not Consume notices for water across almost 30 towns.

Khan said this shift in mindset can be achieved by changing Australia’s attitude on water reuse, removing the current linear process and introducing a new way of thinking.

“When we draw the water cycle for children, it tends to be very linear process — so that we use water once in a much larger water cycle — but we should be thinking instead about closing that loop in urban cycles, and different ways to reuse and recycle water multiple times before we discharge it back into the environment.

“If we can do that, we will solve many of our water shortage problems, as by closing this loop we can multiple the water supply by factor of how many times it is used.”

Looking internationally, Khan says that Australia also has to examine its role in helping to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 — of clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 — with the world falling short of this target.

“One thing to recognise is that it looks like we’re not going to meet that goal, so there’s a lot to be done internationally,” Khan said.

“There are major parts of the world where people don’t have access to safe drinking water; we’re not perfect and there are gaps here but compared to other parts of world we’re way ahead.

“There’s an urgency in South America, Asia, and Africa, where people have poor standards of living because they have poor sanitation.”

While countries like India are committing around US$20 billion through its "Clean India" program to improve their sanitation, Khan said Australia needs to play a larger role in supporting nearby nations in Asia Pacific to help them reach the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6.

“Achieving these goals locally needs to be address through aid and supporting other nations,” he said.

“Australia should take some responsibility for the Pacific. In terms of regional aid, oz should be playing a bigger role to help achieve those goals.”

“Plenty of countries in region see Australia as the nearest wealthy developed nation, places such as Fiji, Samoa, West Papua, many places that are very close to us, don’t enjoy anywhere near what we enjoy in terms of reliable high quality drinking water supply. We need to change that.”

The value of water means different things to different people, and Australia has the capability, experience and resources to ensure that — at least for our nation and the region — water can live up to those different expectations, and help people improve their standard of living, so that the world is one step closer to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6.