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Water sector needs more bushfire resources, survey shows

An industry survey on Australia’s devastating 2019-20 bushfires shows the water sector needs more tools to deal with water quality challenges during natural disasters.

The Australian Water Association (AWA), in partnership with the University of New South Wales Global Water Institute, the NSW Water Directorate and the Water Services Association of Australia, recently conducted a survey of water utilities and regional councils affected by the ‘Black Summer’ fires.

AWA CEO Jonathan McKeown said the organisation is currently compiling the results to understand the impacts and issues, lessons learned and recommendations for the future.

“There is a clear difference between smaller regional councils and larger water utilities in their capacity to deal with bushfires and maintain water supply,” he said.

“We need to ensure our regional water providers have the resources to maintain resilience in times of extreme weather conditions and natural disaster.”

Initial findings from the survey show there is a lack of resources available that address catchment impacts and water quality issues following bushfires.

“Some suggestions include scenario-based activities specific to fires or power outages, formation of risk assessment templates, training around vegetation management and data capture obligations, and design guidelines for determining fire water capacity in township water storages,” McKeown said.

“What we hope to achieve with these results is a way forward that empowers water utilities and regional councils to become resilient in the face of extreme weather events and adverse conditions.”

National enquiry

A national Royal Commission into the bushfires was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday. 

It will look at three key areas:

  • improving natural disaster management coordination across all levels of government;
  • improving Australia’s preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters, across all levels of government; and
  • the legal framework for the Commonwealth’s involvement in responding to national emergencies and how that works with state and territory legal frameworks.

Morrison said the inquiry would begin “as soon as possible”, with the final report due on 31 August before the 2020-21 bushfire season. 

“The inquiry acknowledges climate change, the broader impact of our summers getting longer, drier and hotter and is focused on practical action that has a direct link to making Australians safer,” he said.

“That’s why we need to look at what actions should be taken to enhance our preparedness, resilience and recovery through the actions of all levels of government and the community, for the environment we are living in.”

As commissioners, Former Federal Court Judge Annabelle Bennet, environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh and former Australian Defence Force Chief Mark Binskin will look at whether the findings of previous royal commissions were ever acted on.

Traditional land and fire management techniques used by Indigenous Australians will also form part of the inquiry.

For more information on the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, click here.