As part of WSAA’s Young Utility Leaders Program I attended Ozwater’19. It was an inspiring experience, centred on the theme Transforming our World – an ambitious challenge for a humble industry.

But after listening to the keynote speakers and presenters, from Australia and abroad, I began to deepen my understanding of the many ways that water shapes the community and influences people’s lives. 

I began my OzWater’19 journey learning about the ways our industry is progressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, carries particular significance for the water industry as it most closely aligns with our core business. But our impact and influence also extends well beyond it.

It was inspiring to hear how different utilities are using the 17 SDGs to help consider the broader implications of individual projects and more deeply understand the impact their organisation has on the world around them. Yarra Valley Water and Melbourne Water both presented on their approaches to using the Goals to take a broader view of sustainability and examine their contribution. After all healthy waterways, resilient infrastructure, supporting food production and contributing to sustainable development in our cities – that’s our core business too.

However, one presentation had the biggest impact on me. It was an eye-opening experience to sit and listen, as TasWater took us on their journey to supply safe drinking water to 15 regional communities in Tasmania.

I have heard more than one person question how relevant the SDGs are to us in Australia, particular Goal 6. After all, the majority of Australian’s are fortunate enough to take safe drinking water for granted. We turn on the tap and fill a glass without a second thought. But there are still some communities where this isn’t the case and it was great to hear of the progress by water utilities in WSAA’s session on meeting goal 6 in indigenous communities. 

Far too often, it is our most vulnerable customers that are at the highest risk when services aren’t provided. A fact also highlighted by SA Water, who have been looking at how to better meet the diverse needs of customers living with disabilities.

However, I think there is another side to Goal 6 which poses a greater challenge.

SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

In our role as utilities, we are tasked with ensuring that water and sanitation will be available – today, tomorrow, next year, next decade and for the next generation.

The impacts of climate change are already starting to emerge. It will shape each of our cities and regions differently, but we will all see more frequent and extreme periods of drought, more intense rainfall and more extreme temperatures. This will affect the abundance and quality of our water supplies, damage parts of our infrastructure and change the way our customers use water. 

In that context, it isn’t much of a surprise that a full house turned out to see GHD, Seqwater and Water Corporation present on drinking recycled water. GHD started the conversation by discussing the prevalence of drinking water reuse across the USA and around the world. Water Corporation, who already use recycled water to replenish groundwater aquifers, explored the viability of other configurations of reuse in their system (while they’re not ready to pursue it yet, they are open to it in the future).

Meanwhile, Seqwater approached the same topic from a different angle. The Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme was built at the end of the millennium drought but never needed. In the context of the current drought, the day may come, where they need to turn it on. 

That led us into the workshop, where representatives from Sydney Water, South East Water and Seqwater were joined by a panel of experts to ask: Is Australia ready to drink recycled water?

I’d love to say that we solved this complex challenge in the one and a half hours, and then celebrated at the Gala Dinner! But I think we just began to understand the complexities that come with this issue.

Recycled water was just one, of many solutions to the many complex challenges that were discussed at Ozwater’19. There is no one-size-fits-all option. If we want to achieve SDG 6, and ensure the availability of water and sanitation into the future, we all need to start work on our own combination of solutions. 

Right across the conference there were hundreds of presentations offering different approaches and solutions for tackling the big challenges we face – from the technical to the social. This innovation, creativity and willingness to collaborative gives me a lot of hope for the future. We’ve got a lot of complex challenges ahead of us, but Ozwater’19 was a perfect illustration of the ways we’re already tackling them.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it gain: We’re a collaborative industry that faces a lot of shared challenges – we have so much to gain by working together.

29 May 2019

Morgan Pauly

Morgan Pauly

Strategy and City Shaping Analyst