SustainableUrban Water Systems: Issues and Opportunities

ReportNo WSAA 116

March 1997




This reportpresents a very broad review of contemporary challenges faced by the urbanwater sector in the context of a changing local and global economy andenvironment. It covers a broad spectrum of issues associated with the linkbetween the concept of sustainability (or ecologically sustainabledevelopment), cities and water.




Ecologicallysustainable development has emerged as a clarion for a new era. It aims toprovide ways to facilitate integration of economic, social and ecologicalfactors in decision making to tackle poverty and environmental collapse. It hasemerged in response to a growing recognition of the inter-relationship betweenthese issues, but primarily has been driven from an environmental perspective.There are many definitions of ESD which reflect a diversity of world views,from technocentric to ecocentric. Although this is the case, the key point thatneeds to be recognised is that the concept of ESD reflects an evolving ethicwhich is replacing the idea of ‘progress’.


WhileESD presents many challenges, the most fundamental seems to be ensuring thatnew values are enculturated into society and the capacity for change,innovation and adaptability is enhanced. This will aid in developing the muchneeded political support for ESD at a broad community level. It also needs tobe remembered that often real change and innovation comes from those who ignore“conventional rationality, who enable the system to creatively respond to newchallenges” (Hollick 1991: 4). Thus a key feature of society must be thedevelopment of a willingness to adapt to change and uncertainty. But thatwillingness to change must be developed through processes which encouragesociety to choose its future, rather than reacting to it.




Urbansustainability is increasingly being seen as the focus for ESD strategiesbecause cities are the major economic structure of society. The massive growth ofurbanisation means that sustainability of human settlements will be essentialin achieving key global ESD objectives – of reducing poverty and providingadequate shelter for the Earth’s rapidly growing population.


Indevising strategies aimed at urban sustainability, a starting point has beenconceptualising the city as an ecosystem. This provides the basis for devisingstrategies aimed at minimising stresses to source and sink environments. Thesetypes of strategies have sometimes been referred to as urban ecology orecosystem approaches. Strategies for urban sustainability can operate at a‘repairing’ or ‘preventative’ mode and at a ‘partial’ or ‘structural’ leveldepending upon the focus of concern. To facilitate urban sustainability,policies which encourage both new urban forms and new urban technologies areseen as important ingredients for urban sustainability.






Thekey urban water issues that need to be addressed in the context of anystrategies for urban sustainability are:


·        Theprovision of safe water and wastewater services


·        Increasingcosts of a growing and ageing water infrastructure


·        Increasingper capita and total water consumption


·        A reductionin the number and quality of urban and near-urban water environments


·        Significantdisruption to the natural water balance


Theseissues have origins that are historical, political, technical, financial andinstitutional. They are embedded in the fabric of urban life, institutions andurban form and are a consequence of the so-called “Big pipes in – Big pipesout” approach to urban water management which has evolved from 19thcentury responses to the industrial city.


Theemergence of these problems is not new, but the scale has now reachedproportions where solutions are required that involve new ways of thinking. Arange of responses has been developed. The shift to commercialisation andestablishment of new legislative structures can assist with cost saving but maynot deal with sustainability issues unless incorporated firmly into regulatory processes.Sustainability requires new water quality strategies, demand management,pricing reform, public consultation processes, water efficiency strategies andurban integrated catchment management, where greater emphasis is placed onlocalised management and technology.


Thedocument concludes with some examples of these integrating processes, emergingtechnologies and economic tools which present opportunities yet to be fullyrealised. But achieving the benefits of these mechanisms, in the context of increasingpressure for commercialisation, will require a fundamental shift in thebusiness focus of water utilities. It is argued their best strategy is forthese organisations to shift their focus from notions of ‘economies of scale’to a focus on ‘economies scope’, where their future, in whatever shape they aretransformed into, is in the provision of integrated water management servicesand not simply the provision of water and wastewater in traditional ways.


Thereis a world demanding innovative water management solutions and Australia iswell placed to become a leader in this field. What is sorely needed is avigorous program of demonstration of innovative ideas, decision makingprocesses, strategies and technologies, most of which are already available,but have not been tested in any meaningful way. The institutionalisation of the‘new paradigm’ requires an unprecedented willingness to integrate the skillsand resources that are already available. No longer should good ideas be killedoff on the basis the argument that it is simply a matter of the willingness ofprofessionals, the agencies they represent and the community to ‘integrate’ andcome up with more sustainable solutions.


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