Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Technology Underpins Better Water Management

By Brian Spies

Water policy needs to accelerate the development and uptake of efficient technologies that can adapt rapidly to changing climate and population.

Water holds the key to Australia’s long-term productivity and quality of life, , and technological innovation and scientific advances are the keys to our water future. However, innovation in the water space in this nation is often impeded by existing long-term investments in infrastructure and outdated systems and technology.

A key step in moving forward is for Australian governments – at all levels – to encourage investment and uptake of energy-efficient and flexible water supply options, which will increase economic efficiency and productivity and reduce environmental impact.

A broad-ranging new report on water management, of which I was the lead author, calls for government support for innovation to be carefully targeted to accelerate the development and uptake of efficient technologies that can adapt rapidly to changing climate and population. This support must minimise the risk of technology lock-in, reduced competition and the crowding-out of private investment.

The report – Sustainable Water Management: Securing Australia’s Future in a Green Economy – was released by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) following a year-long study led by ATSE Fellows.

It was the first of three major studies being conducted by ATSE, with Australian Research Council funding, on the application of a “green growth” approach to key resource issues in the Australian economy. The term “green growth” refers to a process for sustainable economic development that recognises the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of elements of the economy, the environment and society as a whole. A green growth strategy harnesses the economic opportunities provided by new technologies and advanced products while reducing the environmental impact and social disruption from such changes.

Green growth has been strongly sponsored in the Asia-Pacific region through the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and is most evident in economies such as the Republic of Korea and China. In March 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke of the need to shift its measure of economic success from a GDP focus towards a broader set of sustainability metrics to save energy and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

In conducting the ATSE study it became evident that investment decisions in water infrastructure would require the use of the best science to balance social, economic and environmental factors and take account of the cost of externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and water pollution.

Australia’s management of water issues has international implications and holds, in part, the key to important world issues. As a major food-exporting nation, Australia has an opportunity to use its water resources even more efficiently as a contribution to feeding the globe’s expanding population and demonstrating best practice in a water-constrained world.

Technological innovation and scientific advances will play ever-increasing roles in the management of our most important commodity – water – especially in areas such as hydrological modelling and forecasting, increased efficiency of water use, improved environmental outcomes and the ability to adapt rapidly to changes in climate and demand.

Water is interrelated with almost all sectors of the national economy – including agriculture, mining, electricity production, manufacturing, recreation and tourism. Improvements to productivity in the water sector will be underpinned by better resource management, more efficient use of labour and advances in technology, as well as integration with other services such as electricity and waste disposal.

Adaptive planning, using real options for investment decisions, will minimise the risk of unnecessary, high-cost investments. Efficient water markets and the elimination of cross-subsidies will ensure that water is most effectively allocated between competing uses to where it has highest value. Better technical and economic evaluation of water externalities will allow them to be incorporated into policy decisions and water pricing.

The “public good” nature of water justifies government support for R&D, focusing on innovation, efficiency and productivity. Many of Australia’s existing R&D programs in the water sector are nearing the end of their terms and we need a coordinated national approach to the next generation of R&D programs.

Water policy cannot be managed in isolation – it must be fully integrated across all relevant sectors within government and recognise the multiple roles of water within the Australian economy and community.

Dr Brian Spies FTSE is Deputy Chair of the ATSE Water Forum. His career spans senior research and management roles in resource and environmental sectors in Australia and the USA, and most recently he was Principal Scientist, Sustainability and Climate Change, at the Sydney Catchment Authority.