The wisdom of taxi drivers

Tom Mollenkopf, President, IWA Tom Mollenkopf © IWA

Many years ago, I was in Perth, Western Australia, on business. Perth has often been described as the ‘canary in the coalmine’ when it comes to climate change – the early warning of impending danger. It has seen declining rainfall and plummeting water yields for more than two decades now. Upon learning that I was in the water industry, my taxi driver offered his solutions to the problem of stressed water supplies: “There’s plenty of water in the ‘top end’; just pipe it south.”

The ‘top end’ is the far north of Australia, where there is indeed a lot of water: rainfall is, on average, 1700mm each year. There were, however, a few problems with the idea. Well, several problems: a pipeline from the Kimberley region (the northern source) would be 3700km long, at a huge commensurate capital cost – and while one may think, from looking on a map, that the water would flow ‘down’ from the north, a look at the topography shows that it would need to be pumped. Compared with a desalination option, the capital cost of a channel or pipeline was substantially greater: it needed three times more energy, and would emit 4.5 times the greenhouse gases.

Water experts do not, and will not, have a monopoly on decisions about what course to follow

There were other important considerations, too. Australia’s north is known as the ‘dry tropics’ because 75% of rainfall occurs in only four months and, typically, more than 50% of the annual river flow is in three months, with long periods of little or no flow. Capturing this water for the dry months would require huge dams and extensive interference with natural flows, with resultant impacts on important ecosystems, not to mention compromising Indigenous peoples’ interests.

I conveyed this detail to my driver on my way from the airport to the city, pleased with my command of the issues and impeccable logic. I was not ready for his response. “That’s rubbish,” he said (actually, he used a rather less polite, colloquial expression), adding: “It makes more sense to just pipe the water down.”

Experiences such as these have shaped my view that good science, good engineering, even good economics, are not enough when it comes to making decisions and progressing options for solutions to our water needs. Sound water management is needed – more so than ever. But if we are to advance the cause of sound water management, water professionals must engage in dialogue with affected communities and elected officials.

Over recent years, water utilities have been able to achieve better outcomes and community support through education, consultation and engagement. Education centres and public tours of facilities demystify processes around decisions on options; citizen juries empower representatives with detailed briefings before seeking their input; and reducing dense research reports to online presentations expands access. Such initiatives all help.

In Perth, they avoided the pipeline from the north. Instead, they adopted a suite of measures to improve yield in catchments, drive up water efficiency in homes, business and agriculture, and supplement supplies through extensive desalination and recycling.

The water decisions we will need to take over the years and decades ahead will become more challenging with time. Solutions will not be simple or straightforward. At the same time, water experts do not, and will not, have a monopoly on decisions about what course to follow. Decision-making processes must allow for scrutiny and robust debate – including the ‘taxi driver’ view. The task for our sector is to engage with those debates so that sound water management wins the day.

Tom Mollenkopf, President, IWA