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Victorian water utility agreement taps collaboration for accelerated progress

A flagship agreement between five Victorian utilities has dedicated all signatories to a collaborative approach to water sector challenges in a bid to accelerate progress and achieve better outcomes for communities.

Signed in 2022, the MD Accord is a partnership between Barwon Water, Greater Western Water, Melbourne Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water committing to a set of collaboration principles to guide future decision making.
Set to guide and support the utilities through the challenges facing the water sector, the Accord has four key focus areas: water security, Traditional Owners, bulk water entitlements, and water literacy and efficiency.

South East Water Managing Director Lara Olsen said the Accord formalises utility partnership across greater Melbourne to work together on shared challenges and opportunities.
“We've all got certain outcomes that each water organisation needs to deliver, but most of our challenges and opportunities are shared. Climate change doesn't respect organisational boundaries and the need for water security can't be delivered by one organisation,” she said.
“It’s a formalisation, but it’s also a commitment to make the best decisions and create the best outcomes for the communities that we serve. There might be trade-offs worked out between ourselves, but we'll always ensure we are delivering the best outcome for the community.”
Barwon Water Managing Director Shaun Cumming said the scale and the pace of the challenges facing the sector requires collaboration, where Accord partners are working together to leverage capabilities and accelerate effective solutions.
“We can't make decisions as individual organisations if we want to provide the best community outcomes, it's got to be a collective decision-making process,” he said.

“The Accord has some major goals to achieve, in terms of water security and efficiency, water literacy, and working with Traditional Owners in support of self-determination. We’ve got these big rocks that we are all working on moving together at the macro level.
“One of the great things about the Australian water sector is our willingness to collaborate. The Accord has provided a platform for collaboration, but has also enabled the cultural shift needed for collaboration to flow through to practical initiatives.”

Water security for all

When it comes to delivering water security, Olsen said the Accord considers success through a lens that incorporates all communities, including the environment and First Nations peoples.

“When we talk about water security within the Accord, we are talking about water security for our customers, but also for the environment. We know that we need to return at least 55 GL to major rivers in the Greater Melbourne and Geelong region over the next 10 years, and also to Traditional Owners,” she said.

“Sometimes people think of water security on different levels, with industries and households being at the top. The Accord genuinely commits to equitable water security that is achieved for all communities.”

Cumming said one of the biggest things the Accord can do to bolster partnerships with Traditional Owners is to facilitate more sharing of cultural load.

“We are all taking responsibility to learn as much as we can as we listen to Traditional Owners. But the Accord will help us coordinate collaboration and engagement in this space,” he said.
“For example, one of the Traditional Owners groups in our area, the Wadawurrung, is connected to Greater Western Water, Melbourne Water and Barwon Water.
“Rather than have all three utilities approach the Wadawurrung separately with similar requests, we can jointly fund resources for the Wadawurrung to build their capacity to engage with us as a collective.

“We’re aiming to bolster self-determination by returning cultural flows to Traditional Owners. We’re learning about how cultural flows align with environmental flows, and we are sharing those learnings with the Accord and considering how we can do the same across all water bodies in our region.”

Olsen said the water sector already knows greater impact can be achieved when resources, learnings and new approaches are shared and combined, with efforts towards creating greater water literacy a key example.
“In terms of water literacy, our focus is twofold. We want to help individuals understand the water cycle, their water consumption and give them some options for reducing use,” she said.
“But, we know that we can no longer depend on rainfall, and water literacy is also about sharing our understanding of the transition that we need to make to more recycled water and desalinated water with the community.
“We need them to be able to participate in conversations and be involved in decision making on the changes that we move ahead with. Working together and sharing insights, we will be better placed to bring all of our communities along with us.”

Building on benefits

Olsen said the Accord is already starting to see benefits from the dedicated effort to joint problem-solving and increased collaboration.

“Our ability to speak with one voice and provide input to key stakeholders, be it community groups or government, creates more effective and efficient communication,” she said. 

“Those big rocks we are working on moving together – they are very big rocks. For us, success will include delivering water security for Melbourne and Geelong, enabling our communities to be part of decisions and better understand changes to the water cycle.
“We’ll have success when we deliver on appropriately supporting Traditional Owners, and when we've ensured that our sector is set up for a sustainable future.”

Cumming said one of the overarching benefits of the Accord is also the cultural shifts it enables within all of the participating utilities, in terms of being able to learn from others and gain new experiences.
“Working together collaboratively means we’ve got a lot more diversity involved, and that really helps our teams and their growth, too,” he said.
“The consistency of the collaboration principles that we’ve all signed onto under the Accord are felt deeply across and within our organisations.
“As the Accord goes on, we will continue to build the resilience required to overcome emerging challenges, but also the trust to challenge each other, as well.”