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Integrated Urban Water Management — why a good idea seems hard to implement

Regulator strategy Drinking water Fresh water Policy failure Urban water Water security Australia

Australia's major cities are changing rapidly. Population projections indicate that our five largest capital cities will need to accommodate around 10 million additional residents by 2050. Climate change is likely to mean increased temperatures, reduced rainfall, more frequent and severe droughts and more extreme storm events. In response, billions of dollars will be spent over the next decade on new water infrastructure in growth areas and replacing existing ageing assets.

With such rapid growth, there is a major focus on ensuring that cities remain ‘liveable’. A key component of liveability is the provision of urban amenity, including access to high quality green open spaces, which is increasingly recognised as being important for the physical and mental health of residents and their potential to combat rising temperatures in urban areas. The availability of water — both in the landscape and to ensure the ‘green’ in green open space — is an important input to providing enhanced amenity.

Integrated water cycle management (IWCM) is a relatively new approach that is advocated by the water sector as a way to meet these challenges more efficiently and effectively. IWCM is a whole‑of‑system, multidisciplinary approach that aims to manage the entire urban water cycle by integrating the delivery of water, wastewater and stormwater services to contribute to the full suite of water security, public health, environmental and urban amenity outcomes that the community seeks. Using an integrated approach as the ‘business‑as‑usual’ approach for the planning and management of urban water services allows a greater range of options to be identified and evaluated at the outset, which can be designed to provide a broader suite of community outcomes, including enhanced urban amenity. This should lead to better decisions and lower cost solutions. However, IWCM cannot be delivered by the water sector alone. Implementing IWCM will require significant, ongoing collaboration between the land‑use planning and local government sectors and the water sector, in both policy and planning at a range of different scales.

This paper examines the policy and implementation frameworks currently governing the urban water sector to identify where there may be impediments to the adoption of IWCM. The focus is on the arrangements in major cities because of their projected growth, but the issues identified are likely to be relevant to smaller towns and cities as well.

Impediments in the policy environment:

  • There is a lack of clear objectives for water-related aspects of enhanced urban amenity
  • Roles and responsibilities for providing enhanced amenity are unclear
  • Statutory land planning and water planning are not well linked
  • Stormwater planning and management is not integrated into general water planning

Impediments in water service planning and delivery:

  • There are barriers to effective collaboration
  • Project selection is not always based on rigorous and transparent assessment of the options
  • Local-scale and system-wide water planning are not well integrated



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