Discussion paper

Urban water futures: trends and potential disruptions

Water Cities and towns Urban planning Australia

The urban water industry in Australia has undergone significant changes over the last 30 years, especially due to the Millennium Drought. They have included changes to the physical water supply system, reductions in per capita water demand, and changes to decision-making processes and management practices. Not all the decisions made during the Millennium Drought were the best possible, and there are lessons to be learnt and opportunities for improvement. Nevertheless, as a result of the changes made during the drought, Australia now has significant capacity and diversity in supply, including a range of scales of supply and greater integration of decentralised and distributed systems and demand management initiatives. It also now has a mature and innovative water industry with exceptional world leading knowledge, and a new generation of water practitioners with expertise that spans across multiple disciplines (e.g. engineering, technology, customer engagement and economics).

In the future, aging water infrastructure will need to be upgraded and replaced, urban density will increase in our major cities, and disruptions will occur. Due to these changes the water industry will be presented with significant challenges but also many opportunities. The strengths developed during the Millennium Drought will need to be leveraged for another major step change in the water industry. The trends and disruptions will include increases in water use efficiency, new configurations of the water and sewerage systems, increased recognition of the water–energy nexus, reconfiguration of institutional arrangements and better engagement with the community. They will also include major transformation due to the rise of the digital era, which will revolutionise the water industry in ways not yet imagined.

The drought is over, and this is now an ideal time to reflect, to take stock of where the industry is at, to scan the trends, disruptions and innovation opportunities that lie ahead, to imagine what the water industry could look like in the next 20 to 30 years, and to work out what it would take to realise that vision. As the weight of history, the push of the present and the pull of the future unfold, there is a need to take control, innovate, advocate and consciously head in the desired direction to ensure that the collective vision of the future water industry is fulfilled. This change, or evolution, will need to go beyond sustainability. The water industry, and associated systems, will need to embrace what are now termed “restorative”, “regenerative” or “net positive” principles so that the industry operates within its means and begins to repair the world in which we live. This transition towards “fourth generation” infrastructure will encompass improved water efficiency, improved source control and more effective separation of pollutants and recovery of resources. It will also encompass improved management and control of flows in the system. This will require a greater investment in treatment and reuse compared to investment in the transport of water, sewage and stormwater, and it will require the recovery of energy, carbon and nutrients.

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