Elevating the water sector’s contribution to urban living

Picture courtesy WSAA

Water industry activity can underpin creation of more livable cities, and it contributes to progress with the Sustainable Development Goals. Adam Lovell explains how this is being demonstrated in Australia.

Cities and regions in Australia are in a period of rapid change. Over the next 30 years, Australia’s population is projected to increase by more than 11 million and 80% of this will be in our five largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. It is hard for many people to imagine that Australia is the third most urbanised country in the world.

Add in a backdrop of climate change, drought and changing community needs, and it becomes clear that it is time for a rethink on traditional approaches to urban planning. Australia has just recorded its hottest summer on record and nine of its 10 hottest years have occurred in the past decade. The current drought in eastern Australia is the worst since records began and many small regional towns have started trucking in water supplies. At the same time, our communities are changing – one of the most threatening issues being the health crisis. Almost 50% of Australians now live with one of eight chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental health issues (up from two in five 10 years ago). Two thirds of adult Australians and New Zealanders, 28% of Australian children and 24% of New Zealand children are overweight or obese – a major risk factor for many chronic conditions.

Water at the heart

While the urban water industry is known for high-quality drinking water and sanitation services, many people are not aware of the larger role the industry has to play in the livability of our communities. A livable city or region is one that meets the basic social, environmental and economic needs of its people, as well as addressing community values and preferences for amenity, wellbeing and a sense of place. To be lasting and resilient, a livable city or region must consider the needs of future generations to understand and respond to shocks and long-term change.

The broader role of water needs to be recognised

Australian cities are recognised as some of the most livable in the world. All key stakeholders, including government, industry and the community, support the development of livable, vibrant and prosperous cities. To achieve this vision, however, the broader role of water needs to be recognised. This will require a change in thinking, not only on the part of the urban water industry, but also through collaboration between a range of players, including all levels of government and other infrastructure sectors, including planners.

The urban water industry has struggled to elevate the debate about the economic value we contribute to health through ‘connectedness’ to water. People connect with water in ways that they probably don’t even realise – and there is now a growing body of evidence that highlights the role the urban environment plays in contributing to our health. In particular, the provision of green infrastructure has been linked to increased physical or relaxation activity, with physical and mental health benefits.

The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) and its members are looking at ways to show policy-makers, governments and communities the broader contribution of water beyond taps and toilets. Utilities are starting to use principles that measure their contribution in more than financial terms. They are using the principles of integrated profit and loss accounting to assess their impact in terms of human, social and environmental capital. Yarra Valley Water, in Victoria, was the first in the global water sector to publish an integrated profit and loss account in 2016, and it continues to use this methodology. The utility reported a financial profit of $50m to its owner, the Victorian Government, in 2015/16, but its value to society was $446m. Recent work for WSAA by Frontier Economics has helped us better understand and quantify the livability-associated health benefits of water industry investments. Investing in urban water to create livable cities improves physical and mental health through:

  • More active recreation
  • More exposure to green space
  • Reduced temperatures associated with the urban heat island effect
  • Lower air pollution.

These four pathways represent the most material, tangible and widespread links between water industry investment and livability-related health outcomes.

For the first time, this report has been able to quantify the costs of water’s contribution to health beyond our core public health role. All the case studies considered delivered significant ongoing benefits to people’s health. The work found that up to $94 per person per year (pppy) of total livability-related benefits are attributable to integrated water management:

  • Up to $28 pppy in benefits from increased activity
  • Up to $48 pppy value of increased mental health wellbeing from exposure to green space
  • Up to $14 pppy in benefits from reduced urban temperatures
  • Up to $4 pppy in benefits from increased air quality.

A vision for change

A good example of how to move away from the ‘business as usual’ approach to achieve the vision of a livable city is Western Sydney. Planning is under way to accommodate more than 1.5 million people in Western Sydney over the next 40 years. The Western Parkland City will reimagine livability and sustainability, providing new cool and green neighbourhoods, and centres with generous open space and increased tree canopy cover. Beyond this example, notable impacts have been made where broader livability outcomes of water industry investments have been considered and monetised, including:

  • The development of wastewater deep-ocean outfalls in Sydney have contributed significantly to health, environmental and social water-quality outcomes. A study, by Deloitte Access Economics, of improved water quality at Sydney’s coastal beaches estimated the value of good coastal beach-water quality to be $137m per year for Sydney residents and an additional $332m to the economy because of tourism
  • Australian adults who live in areas that are at least 30% covered in tree canopy are 31% less likely to develop psychological distress. London residents avoid over more than $400m per year in mental health costs because of public parks
  • Rehabilitating Stony Creek, in western Melbourne, would generate net benefit to the community of up to $16m, primarily in health benefits and improved amenity.

While good examples exist, they are largely opportunistic and not systemic, and there are still gaps to be addressed before our livability objectives can be fully realised. Clearly articulating the objectives, along with clarifying the roles in policy-making, objectives setting and implementation, all need to be determined so that the best outcomes can be achieved. Other important considerations include regulation that is efficient and allows cost-effective, non-regulatory options to be changed.

Working with communities and the SDGs

Looking at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is one way in which utilities are approaching the broader focus and positive impact they can have beyond their own communities. For water utilities, SDG 6: clean water and sanitation captures the sector’s fundamental role. Not content with leading the way in this area, they are reaching further to improve social and environmental outcomes for communities, locally and globally.

In August 2017, the WSAA made a commitment to advance the SDGs with the launch of ‘Global Goals for Local Communities: Urban water advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals’. This work was designed to encourage collaboration between water utilities, governments, regulators and the community, while focusing on a sustainable future for people and the planet. Two years on, and 24 WSAA members have signed the water industry commitment to support and promote all 17 SDGs, in what we believe is a world first of a whole sector committing to support and promote the SDGs.

WSAA is continuing to help the industry use the goals as a lens to frame the broader contribution urban water makes to a prosperous, sustainable and equitable society. As part of this, it is now working with the Monash Sustainable Institute to develop two pieces of work. One is a set of key performance indicators to show progress (or not) in relation to the SDGs. The other is a review of current Integrated Water Management Frameworks, nationally and internationally, and what makes them succeed and fail, including the effectiveness of funding models.

Being aware of SDG 6, WSAA and its members have sought to better understand the roles and opportunities for the water industry in ensuring safe water and sanitation for remote indigenous communities. Water planning and decision-making in these communities in Australia have, historically, employed top-down, linear, capital-intensive and technocratic thinking and solutions. This approach is inadequate to deal with the associated complex and interrelated historical, social, cultural and environmental factors. WSAA has commissioned work to explore collaborative and strength-based actions for positive and long-term change.

We are an industry with purpose

Achieving broader outcomes and the vision for livable, vibrant and prosperous cities requires collaboration between a range of players. Water utilities in Australia are ready for this challenge and are expanding the way we work with others, across all levels of government, as well as the health, planning, development, transport, energy and waste sectors.

WSAA is committed to making the case for water’s role in cities and providing an example for the water sector globally. The bottom line is that water utilities create value for Australia’s urban communities 24/7, as waste managers, green-space providers and public health protectors.

Adam Lovell is Executive Director of the Water Services Association of Australia

Indigenous and remote communities

In Northern Australia, Power and Water employed, mentored and trained four local Indigenous Water Conservation Ambassadors to educate remote communities on positive water behaviours and water efficiency. Building on the programme and collaboration with local organisations and governments, Power and Water is leading the way in exploring more opportunities for indigenous community engagement, training and employment programmes.

In Perth, Western Australia, Water Corporation’s fifth Reconciliation Action Plan, launched in March 2019, includes target areas with actions and measurable targets. Exceeding its 2018 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce target of 3.2%, the Water Corporation has set a new target of 6% by September 2021. Since 2007, the Water Corporation has awarded more than $7.8m in contracts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suppliers across the State. To continue to increase this participation, it has committed to achieving a three per cent progressive procurement target over the next three years.

Livability in Sydney’s Western Parkland City

As Sydney heads towards a population of eight million by 2056, the ‘Western Parkland City’ is earmarked to accommodate a significant portion of population growth. This urbanisation will place major pressure on the health of the South Creek catchment, its tributaries and the local environment, and pose significant challenges in meeting a much higher community demand for water, wastewater and stormwater services in one of the hottest, driest and flattest parts of Greater Sydney.

The Greater Sydney Commission’s vision for a highly productive and livable Western Parkland City, that suffers from an increasing number of hot days above 35ºC with the rainfall that London receives, is central to realising the Government’s vision for Greater Sydney. To do this, it will need to offer a ‘cool and green’ environment, attractive urban communities and appealing places to live, work and play. Water is essential to increase the urban tree canopy, maintain shaded, open and green spaces, and support water features in the landscape. Stakeholders have agreed it will take a new form of planning and management to create this vision. A new waterway manager will therefore take care of all forms of water management, which is better for planning, operations and accountability.

A strategic business case undertaken by Infrastructure NSW and Frontier Economics found that adopting integrated land use and water cycle management strategies would best deliver the Government’s Western Parkland City vision through:

  • Cost savings associated with deferring the augmentation of infrastructure in the potable bulk water and wastewater systems
  • Open space benefits, including improved urban amenity, increased recreation opportunities and lower healthcare costs associated with reduced inactivity
  • Urban cooling benefits, including a reduction of up to 2.2ºC in forecast maximum summer temperatures, and associated reductions in energy consumption, peak demand, and heat-related deaths, illness and healthcare costs
  • Greater protection and conservation of native vegetation and biodiversity.


For more information, see WSAA’s new paper ‘Blue + green = liveability’