Dr Tom Hatton
Few subjects have attracted more public concern and commentary across Australia than our continuing challenge of meeting our water needs. This is understandable, given that most of us have been living under some form of water restriction for an extended period and are regularly confronted with distressing news of businesses and families directly affected by drought. Equally distressing are reports on the deteriorating condition of significant rivers and wetlands that are simply not getting enough water. Then it rains and the paradox of Australia a land of “droughts and flooding rains”* sets the conversations off on another train.
How can we move water from northern Australian to where it is needed elsewhere? How can we make that supply sufficiently reliable? How can we capture and store urban stormwater in a city like Adelaide? How can we ensure human health if we want to recycle wastewater?
The technical challenges implicit in most water options usually dominate the thinking and public debate with construction and operating cost of various water supply options providing a reality check.
Full economic analysis on a water supply system becomes far more complex. What mix of options, coming on line in what time frame and sequence, offers the best price and reliability of water to users in the short and longer terms? The complexities of demand forecasting and management, climate uncertainties and future construction and operating costs across the potential mix of options, are enormous.
When you add issues of public acceptability, environmental implications, social justice issues, aesthetics, and cultural values to the economic complexity the decision-making challenge become daunting. For example, the cost of water recycling for drinking may be very attractive from an economic and environmental point of view but if the public’s perception makes it potentially unacceptable then that needs to be understood. Finally, what might be the best way forward for one part of Australia will almost certainly not hold for another.
I have had the benefit of observing at close hand how options to secure our water future are actually developed by the research community and industry and considered by water utilities and water managers. This experience is at the heart of my optimism that Australian innovation and the professionalism and competency of Australian water professionals will get us through our current water challenges and continue to build a better water future for Australia.
The role of innovation in metropolitan areas is well-defined: find ways to lower the costs of options, increase their reliability, and increase their public acceptability.
CSIRO, universities and industry all have active programs aimed at meeting this challenge. For example, using Commonwealth funds set aside to align universities wit major national challenges, in 2007 CSIRO established a cluster of 10 Australian universities working together to develop low-energy desalination membranes and to find further efficiencies in pre-treatment technologies. The early results are promising. The South East QLD Urban Water Alliance is developing new approaches to urban water infrastructure, water recycling and system management to secure the water future for the fastest growing region in Australia, South Eastern QLD. A large research and development consortium established by the National Water Commission and the Australian Research Council, led by Flinders University, is aimed at better understanding our groundwater systems as our reliance on these supplies grows. These are a just a few examples of the increasing focus among Australian innovators on world-leading, solution oriented science focussed in a serious national challenge.
The metropolitan experience strongly contrasts with the situation for rural water users across much of Australia. Overcommitted water resources combined with an extended, deep drought across the southern part of the country create an acute and persistent gap between supply and demand.
As shown by the recent Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) Sustainable Yields Assessment, there are few opportunities to further develop natural sources of fresh water, and the forecast for current sources is grim. The fundamental differences in opportunity revolve around the scale of challenge and the underlying economics. Where our cities need to close a gap of some 800 GL over the next decade or so, the MDB alone is facing something like a 2500 GL average decline in available water on top of a perceived existing gap of more than 1000 GL in environmental flows.
The innovation challenge in this context involves applying the best possible science to estimate how much water there is likely to be in the future. Based on those estimates, we must analyse various scenarios of what the trade-offs among regional economies, environment and society look like.
Great strides have been made in the past two years in improving forecasting of water availability, including the Sustainable Yield Assessments led by CSIRO for the MDB, Northern Australia, Tasmania and the southwest of Western Australia. The Commonwealth and States are currently investing in new knowledge platforms for understanding and managing rivers flows through the eWater Cooperative Research Centre. Research is also aimed at understanding where efficiency gains can be made in our irrigation areas, both in on-farm water use and in system infrastructure and operations.
As Director of CSIRO’s water flagship, I have frequent opportunity to see how Australia’s water challenges are being met, and how we as a nation stack up in this regard in an international context. Historically we have never had an overabundance of water and have therefore been cleverer with water than other parts of the developed world because we have had to be. We continue to build on that strength. And while our water management and policy challenges are daunting, in fact we have grasped them more firmly than counterparts overseas, in all their complexities.
At CSIRO we are focussed on delivering solution-oriented science to underpin decisions and options for managing our water supplies in urban, metropolitan and rural areas as the items in this newsletter attest.
Enjoy and please feel free to contact me or any of the Flagship team to discuss our research.
Director, Water for a Healthy Country National Research Flagship
* "My Country" by Dorothea Mackellar, 1885 - 1968