As the extremes become more prevalent, society needs to be more aware of ensuring the on-going availability of these resources.
As the extremes become more prevalent, society needs to be more aware of ensuring the on-going availability of these resources.

By Dr Nina Lansbury Hall, The University of Queensland

Our challenge

As I write this in Queensland, I am physically aware that we are in a very hot summer. We have been in the throes of a very strong drought-inducing El Nino for the latter half of 2015, with drought declared across 86 per cent of Queensland before Christmas. Yet projections suggest that the changeover to the La Nina system in 2016 could bring a risk of flooding. Although environment records have shown that Australia’s climate has always been variable, ensuring water resources are available to support our domestic, agricultural and commercial needs throughout these extremes is essential. As the extremes become more prevalent, society needs to be more aware of ensuring the on-going availability of these resources.

What water threats do we need to consider, and are there further opportunities to water-proof our country in times of thirst? This question is particularly pertinent in a changing and variable climate as the current COP21’s draft agreement does not specifically mentioned the term ‘water’.

Looking forwards to plan backwards

Ahead of the CoP21 negotiations in Paris, and to consider how well Australia is positioned for water and other challenges, a FutureAgenda forecasting process was hosted by the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, which used techniques with cross-disciplinary participants to crystallise thinking on the possible world in 2025 in terms of water, energy and food – to ideally trigger appropriate planning to embrace the threats as opportunities.

How are we currently travelling with water?

Water demand is growing – pushed not just by growing populations, but by water-intensive lifestyles and comparatively low water prices. However, half of the cities in Australia with more than 100,000 inhabitants are located in water-scarce areas. This is the case in Australia, with flow-on effects to environmental quality, human health, economy and governance capacity.

Environmentally, declining water quality and over extraction in Australia is directly impacting agricultural and economic productivity, through loss of farmland (through salinity) and impacts on fisheries, tourism and recreation. The role of clean, accessible and available water for providing wellbeing through maintaining human health and associated productivity of individuals is often overlooked – including in Australia’s remote communities.

Beyond direct consumption, having sufficient quality and quantities of accessible water is crucial for other aspects. Globally, 90 per cent of power generation is water-intensive – forcing serious energy considerations when planning desalination and wastewater recycling. For food, irrigated agriculture is worth AUD$13 billion annually – already a costly input to farming, with food prices likely to increase as a result.

Given its interlinkages with other issues, the threat of future water insecurity reaches beyond environmental impacts to encompass social and economic concerns – which raises questions on the adequacy of the current governance structures. The siloing of some government agencies can make it difficult for hard decisions to be made across increasingly interlinked sectors – especially energy, food and water.

Opportunities to build a water-secure future

The FutureAgenda forecasting considered these water threats in the frame of opportunities within the context of a changing climate.

An effective approach to ensure secure and safe sources of food, energy, and water within the overlay of global climate change is through ‘water-energy-food nexus’ - thinking.

This ensures that any new technologies, supply chains or behaviours consider the potential impact on other sectors and the environment - such as the impacts of a new energy or food crop on water use, energy consumption, and waste or by-product production.

Managing Australian water security within a variable climate and with these increasing demands requires a governance structure that can incorporate continuing uncertainty through flexible management systems that adapt to changes in climatic and economic conditions. Important characteristics of such adaptive management systems include de-centralisation and resilience.

The quality and quantity of water directly impacts the productivity of Australia that rely on the ‘ecosystem services’ supported by rivers and oceans. The approach of Integrated Water Resource Management recognises the importance of environmental stewardship to the value of the downstream ecosystem services, and thus seeks to avoid unintended and undesirable consequences engendered by isolated management interventions.

The millennium drought forced Australian governments and water utilities to consider and develop alternative sources of water to ensure a more secure water supply. These sources include the re-use and recycling of waste water, stormwater, co-produced water from mining and manufacturing, and desalination of sea water. Revaluing ‘waste’ water as a valuable ‘resource’ can also provide additional products such as nutrient recapture from sewage to be returned as soil conditioners for agriculture.

Sustainable urban design and associated ‘green infrastructures’ can provide water efficiency when considered in new and retrofitted urban developments - while also designing for climate change adaption and resilience. This can include rain water harvesting, run-off capture, green spaces, preparedness for extreme events, urban water supply, usage and planning, and waste management.

The human dimension in water management affects both the uptake of new water behaviour and sources. ‘Water literacy’, or the awareness of the sources and treatment required to deliver water, influences uptake of water-saving devices and strategies, and the public resistance to consumption of treated wastewater, stormwater and sea water for potable purposes.

From 2015, a social consideration directly impacted by water is the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which aims to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ – and acknowledges how clean, safe and accessible water provision can influence wellbeing through improved personal and community health. This is particularly pertinent when water-related poor hygiene and unsanitary living conditions in remote Australian Aboriginal communities have contributed to children experiencing a higher rate of common infectious diseases than children in non-Aboriginal, urban communities.

Water security will continue to be a question with which Australia will wrestle. Continuing urban growth will inevitably compete with existing agricultural and industrial water allocations in some regions. However, options exist for alternative water sources, resilient management and more aware consumption to ensure a safe, available and secure future water supply.

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