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The power of people at the Water Leaders Forum

The Water Leaders Forum, held on the first morning of Ozwater’23, gathered the most senior leaders in water to contemplate strategies for immediate action on the most pressing water-related issues.

The invite-only session, sponsored by GHD, featured a panel of experts who challenged attendees with impassioned remarks that often left the room sitting in silent self-reflection.

A running theme was engagement with First Nations communities as critical to the industry’s ongoing efficacy.

Lindsay Brown, Australian Market Leader – Water at GHD, explained to attendees the rationale behind the session.

“You already know everything there is to know about the water industry in Australia,” she said.

“We really wanted to have a different kind of conversation with the incredible leaders that we have in the room. We wanted to really challenge you.”

A global perspective

Don Holland, Canadian Market Leader – Water at GHD, then explored water’s role in enabling sustainable outcomes in North America.

After acknowledging the customary keepers of the land on which he lives in Canada, Holland stressed the time-sensitive nature of the climate emergency and the increasingly visible impacts of population growth, urbanisation and infrastructure resilience.

“We all know what’s going on,” he said of the threat presented by climate change. “The big thing is that we're being asked to do more with less, at a better quality than we’ve ever done before – and faster.”

Despite the pressures of accomplishing more with less, Holland said the solution lies in collaboration.

“Collaboration, both internally and externally – that's our way out,” he explained. “[It’s] what we’re doing today: learning together, learning how to collaborate across boundaries, whether that be within your own organisation, state, [or province].

“It's not just about being green. It's not [just] about being resilient. It's really focusing on co-benefits. So if I make my city greener, then I can reduce the heat stress on my population, and reduce the cost of the healthcare system.

“At the end of the day… water doesn't care about our boundaries, so why should we? We should act accordingly.”

Holland pointed to an example of how government entities can learn from First Nations communities’ approaches to water management.

In the Colorado River Basin, seven U.S. states are currently stuck in litigation with the Federal Government on how to cut back on water use. The 40 million people in those seven states use on average 300 to 380 litres of water per day, while the 140,000 people of the Navajo Nation use on average 26 litres per day.

“Water is an entity that we should respect,” Holland said. “Ask water as if it was here at the table. Ask water what it wants. It is a partner in our communities, not a commodity for us to control.”

Climate change and collaboration

Holland’s keynote address was followed by a panel, facilitated by Brown, featuring: Cynthia Mitchell, UTS Professor Emerita and founder of The Good Ancestor; Phil Duncan, a Gomeroi man and Senior Aboriginal Consultant at Alluvium; and James Smith, Director of Global C&I Water Metrology at Xylem.

Mitchell gave an impassioned monologue about the imminent dangers of the climate emergency and destruction of First Nations communities.

“I'd like to broaden our view a little and call out the elephant that's in every room,” she said. “We're facing an existential crisis. It's that big.

“So I say to you, the leaders of the sector that holds the keys to the careful management of the single most important ingredient for all life on our planet going forward – no pressure! – net zero is not zero. It’s good, but it’s not zero.”

Mitchell recalled Olivia Tyler’s message at the day’s opening plenary.

“You touch pretty much every single Australian,” she noted. “Every household, every business. That's an incredible reach and an amazing opportunity. What more could you do with it? What do you want your legacy to be?”

Duncan, like Holland, stressed the importance of relationships. By having a voice in the industry, he gets an opportunity to “realise part of my cultural obligation and responsibility to protect [water] and influence how we protect that resource together”.

“Western science and [Indigenous] cultural science don't clash,” he said, explaining that integrating a western methodology of managing water with traditional techniques and values can prove fruitful. 

And speaking to the non-Indigenous members of the audience, Duncan made a robust call to action.

“In order for us to realise our potential, we're smart enough to know that we can't do it in isolation,” he said. “We are here, willing to work with and for you to build your cultural capacity [and] therefore unlock your cultural confidence to be better with us.”

Smith, a digital data expert, rounded off proceedings by reflecting on the increasingly integrated role of water professionals and industry players in everyday life – a far cry from the systems of yesteryear.

“For the longest time, if you asked me, ‘What is the water utility’s job?’, I would say, ‘They've got two jobs – deliver water, stay out of the news,” he said.

“But how do you stay on the news when you have a 100-year drought followed by a 100-year flood? How do you stay out of the news when COVID hits and you've got shifts in your water distribution going from urban centres of growth to residential centres of growth.”

Asked if data – and, by extension, technological innovation, automation and AI – is the answer to all our water troubles, Smith provided a more holistic, people-centric suggestion that echoed the sentiment of the other panellists.

“It's part of the answer,” he said. “There are the data and the tools – and then there are the people.”