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Queensland Water Professional of the Year 2022

Emma O'Neill is the Queensland Sustainable Water Capability Lead for Aurecon. In 2022 she was named the AWA Queensland Water Professional of the Year. Before she heads to Sydney to compete in the National Water Awards, our Queensland Branch Vice President, Will Speirs, asked Emma what inspires and challenges her.

What drew you to the water industry?
I’ve always worked in water but not exclusively in the water industry –my experience also includes environmental management, local government and international development -but my work has always considered the importance of water to people and the environment. The water sector is fundamentally important to the sustainability of our cities and communities, and it’s a great sector to work in.

Who or what do you draw inspiration from?
From everywhere! I get a lot of inspiration from the beauty of nature and seeing water in the landscape. Also from people. I’m inspired by people who challenge the status quo, people who can laugh at themselves, admit mistakes, say when they don’t know something, and seek information that challenges their thinking.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Play tennis. Hike. Walk by the river. Watercolour paint. Listen to / see live music. Try to be a good friend and family member to my loved ones. Surround myself with plants starting with my apartment. I also do some pro-bono and volunteer work. Recently I’ve been providing some support to a small community in New Zealand who have wastewater discharge occurring on their cultural lands and waters. I’ve been helping them to navigate the planning process and legislation. In March I’m working on a project in the Pacific Island country of Kiribati that aims to draw attention to people and cultures impacted by climate change.

What do you believe is currently the greatest challenge for your part of the water industry?
Climate change and the many ways in which it is manifesting, which will lead to increasing tensions between costs and levels of service.
I don’t believe it is yet being adequately incorporated into long term planning and decisions that are being made now which will be in effect for decades to come.

How does your organisation benefit from being a corporate member of the Australian Water Association?
It allows us to connect to amazing professionals and knowledge across Australia. AWA events are excellent, and the support provided across specialist networks and committees helps our people to develop strong networks and continually learn.

What messages would you like to give to your colleagues in the Queensland water sector?
We need to really think hard about what the future is going to be like and the role of the water sector in providing resilient communities, while also protecting the environment. We need broad thinkers who understand the whole of the water cycle, we need problem solvers, and we need a willingness to think differently about what solutions look like.