Reforming urban water: a national pathway for change

Water Urban planning Infrastructure Australia
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Urban water is a critical resource that we cannot afford to take for granted Australia’s urban water sector provides an essential service to more than 20 million people and 9 million connected properties in our cities and towns. The sector has a strong track record of providing a range of high quality services to support our great way of life and to underpin economic activity.

Australians have rightly come to expect that their water will be clean, safe and available whenever they need it. For many, the only interaction we have with our water provider – beyond turning on taps and flushing toilets – is when we pay for services through our bills or council rates. Increasingly, we also expect our water services to meet a range of broader environmental outcomes in our growing towns and cities. Few give a second thought to the extensive, largely hidden water infrastructure systems required to deliver these services.

While some may take it for granted, urban water infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, and faces a number of challenges over coming years. Much of the urban water infrastructure that has served us well in the past is ageing, or coming under increasing pressure from growing populations and a changing climate. Reform is required to ensure the sector can continue to provide safe, reliable and affordable services into the future.

Urban water should move from a sector where governments must balance roles as owner, regulator and policy-maker to a more sophisticated, well-regulated, responsive sector with stronger links between supply and demand, and clearer signals for efficient investment. This means re-shaping the urban water sector, including the range of institutions, regulatory frameworks and decision-making processes that govern them, to be more efficient, resilient, transparent and accountable.

Australia’s governments and utilities have a distinct opportunity to plan and prepare for the challenges ahead in a way that will most effectively and efficiently meet the long-term needs of users. Delaying these actions means pressing concerns – such as a major drought or failing assets – could prevent clear thinking on effective, long-term solutions. Now is the time for reform.

This paper establishes a foundation and a pathway for reforming urban water. It: 1. provides the case for reform and the potential costs of inaction 2. establishes national objectives to guide reform and ensure the sector can meet future challenges 3. benchmarks each state and territory’s urban water sector against minimum and best practice criteria 4. identifies a pathway with clear recommendations to guide reform efforts across the country.

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