Community engagement should be at the heart of water advocacy

WaterfallTravelling is a great opportunity to experience different cultures and relax with friends and family. A recent experience of mine has been a trip to Vanuatu. In addition to the continuous friendly smiles received from the locals and the exorbitant amount of fresh fruit available for consumption was the pristine natural environment. 

Vanuatu is well regarded for its shoreline, including beaches and coral reefs which attract many different species of fish. The island’s rainforest regions are filled with cascading waterfalls which feed into rock pools and lagoons. All of this highlighted the abundance of fresh water that is available and an environment which continues to thrive during periods of drought or intense rainfall as was experienced during Cyclone Pam in May last year.
Upon reflection, it is easy to take these resources for granted and remain convinced that the people of Vanuatu will have long term security of water supplies. Vanuatu however has its own environmental and social challenges to be faced in the future. The majority of its population resides along the coastline and communities are therefore vulnerable to a rise in Degrees Celsius of global sea temperatures.
As the Australian water sector it is our responsibility to ensure that water security remains at the forefront of political decision making. We also need to ensure that water professionals both here in Australia, and within the wider Asia-Pacific region, are equipped with the necessary skills and expertise to combat these events. We need to use examples of environments like Vanuatu, where densification of human settlement has not occurred, to appreciate the relationship between the ecosystem and the waterways that confide within. 

The United Nations has recently coordinated the agreement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a majority of countries across the world to ensure prosperity for all into the future. Goal six of the Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Further, each goal has specific targets which are to be met in order for that goal to be achieved. 

There is one specific target that the Australian water sector can play a huge role in: by 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity, and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.

It is estimated that by 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of fresh water. Australia is not alone. As a dry continent with an important agricultural sector, ensuring sustainable water management in cities and rural areas is critical for Australia’s prosperity to be maintained.

Sustainable Development Goals
The Australian Water Association’s Water Security for all Australians scorecard addresses this target through water management to create liveable cities where communities, industry and the environment all interact. It is becoming widely recognised that population growth and climate change will play a huge part in delivering water security for Australians into the future. Australia must therefore continue to diversify its water supply asset base and promote all forms of decentralisation. This ensures that we maintain an acceptable level of resilience given the challenges which may occur. 

Planning must be adaptive to these changes as one cannot predict to a high degree of certainty the impacts which may be felt. Reform of the 2004 National Water Initiative is required to consider these needs and for Australia to reach its sustainable development goal targets. A sustainable water planning act which ensures integrated urban water management is at the heart of long-term policy and planning needs to be implemented at a national level. By continuing to increase water use efficiency through better management of water, the cost of water can be reduced. All of this has the ability to improve water security for all Australians and become an essential adaptation measure to climate change in the long term.

In the recent federal election, water and the environment was barely mentioned. Humans are more likely to tune into matters which will affect them today rather than in 10 years’ time.  Being able to visit the doctor and pay for essential services today has a higher priority than asking whether there will be enough water to feed the nation tomorrow. This is a cultural political shift that we as water professionals can strongly advocate for. 

What is required is similar to an active grassroots campaign. Engagement with the community should be at the heart of what we strive for. Every breath of air expelled by the water industry should be directed towards those who have a limited understanding of the issues, as well as representatives with influence in society. 

Community forums, strategic marketing campaigns, partnering with other institutions, and greater representation within parliamentary committee inquiries should be evaluated. More importantly, we need wide sector representation and strong research to empower decision making. Responsibility should not just be left to utilities to persuade public opinion. We have three years to advocate for a strong enough position on water security to make all political parties stand up and take notice.

This article has been written by Robert Goedecke, YWP NRC President. 

On 31 October the Association will host a webinar on the United Nations Sustainability Goals presented by researchers at the University of Queensland Global Change Institute. For more information or register for this webinar please click here