Categories: Sustainability Strategies, Sustainable Resource Use Sectors: Developers
Julia Gillard reignited debate on a ‘sustainable Australia’ in the lead-up to the federal election, putting to the side the notion of ‘big Australia’.
Yet, Treasury predicts Australia’s population will grow to 35 million by 2049.
When we think of a larger population, many of us imagine it without new infrastructure. Our roads are increasingly congested and our public transport is inadequate due to poor planning. The problems are getting worse as our country grows.
Even if we don’t reach the population predicted by Treasury, there will still be enormous pressure on infrastructure including water supply.
Luckily, there is more focus on water supply as our population grows and our continent becomes drier and a strategy for securing our water supply is already emerging. This being said, a new way of thinking is required for our country to support the inevitable population growth.
Urban water supply is a critical enabler of economic activity in Australia’s metropolitan and regional areas, and it’s a significant economic sector in its own right.
The availability of reliable and affordable water is also fundamental to maintaining a high living standard for all Australians.
The supply of water and wastewater services to most of urban Australia is largely undertaken by government-owned water authorities that operate as regulated monopoly businesses. These ageing infrastructures are in some cases getting to the end of their lives and in many cases they are overloaded.
In addition to this, building new dams to increase water supply is problematic on a number of levels.
From an environmental point of view, it damages the local eco-system.
There are also very few adequate places for new dams to be built and, even if a site was found and land was released, it would not mean that the dam would fill up.
The provision of water and sanitation services is a natural first step for a developer in both residential and commercial projects. However, centralised sewerage, which is the system used around Australia today, is expensive to build and maintain.
So to ensure we continue to develop sustainable housing and commercial development, a new way of thinking must prevail and that is, decentralised water supply.
I applaud the NSW Government which has recently opened up the water market through its WICA license scheme. The establishment of the new licensing regime applies to private sector providers of reticulated drinking water, recycled water and sewerage services and the establishment of a third-party access regime for water and sewerage infrastructure.
This provides a much needed flexible platform for decentralised water, sewerage and recycled water to be placed where it is needed and, perhaps more importantly, when it is needed.
Decentralised water supply allows staged development, community involvement and local reuse, instead of the prevailing thought that says water should be piped over vast distances and treated in large plants.
This type of thinking can’t remain economically viable in the long run.
There are a few ‘much-talked-about’ examples of decentralised water reuse in Australia but they are rare. The NSW Government was able to jump over many hurdles to make a showcase development which is now the Sydney Olympic Park area and the suburb of Newington.
But since that was constructed in the 1990s similar schemes have been too infrequent.
Decentralised water supply is ideal for residential developments of more than 200 dwellings or for commercial buildings. Smaller, modern recycled water and drinking water plants located near the point of use results in lower cost, shorter pipe runs and reduced pumping costs.
Developers need to have commercial imperatives to consider investing in new areas. Prior to the new regulations in NSW, most had little option but to wait until the government-owned utility arrived in an area.
There are many property developers who are currently sitting on land outside areas with access to water and sewerage services waiting patiently for the public utility to connect them up. In many cases they will wait forever. Sometimes they are given a timeframe but more often they are told it will happen in the future but no guarantees are given.
In some areas, the incumbent utility will never put sewer because it is not viable for them.
Naturally, developers want more certainty and the new regulations in NSW can provide clear answers. A private water recycling plant can be up and running in as little as two years. It can also be augmented on a staged installation basis so the investment is spread out as well.
In most areas of Australia, developers can currently put in their own infrastructure but must then deal with it on a community title basis which means ongoing management.
Most of them prefer not to have ongoing involvement in the development. It’s a bit like the way gated communities are managed. They are popular in the United States but haven’t really been embraced in Australia.
There are also political forces in play like the NSW Government’s metropolitan growth strategy which has earmarked tracts of land in Sydney’s north west and south west to build 200,000 to 300,000 homes. But there are some major steps to undertake before this becomes a reality including the all important water and sanitation.
So for a ‘sustainable Australia’ to really happen, better planning including decentralised water supply must become part of the Australian way.