Is integrated urban water management missing the mark?

Integrated urban water management (IUWM) has room for methodological improvement if it's to achieve its biggest objectives, the Australian Water Association Young Water Professionals Conference has heard.

RMIT University PhD candidate Casey Furlong showcased his research into understanding IUWM at the event last week, highlighting a discord between objectives and methodology.

Furlong said IUWM should be thought about as a variety of objectives and methods, rather than one unified, effective approach.

“If we look at integrated urban water management, a lot of the associated methods don't really lead to the expected outcomes,” Furlong said.

Common objectives that Furlong identified include environmental protection, reduced cost, and livability and greening. He has found that some experts also view alternative fit-for-purpose water sources as an inherent objective, while other experts say this objective is not always appropriate. Methods suggested to achieve these objectives have been found to include stakeholder engagement, coordinated planning, holistic option assessment and integrated modelling.

However, Furlong said many of these methods had either fallen short of the target when applied or, in many cases, simply not been necessary to achieve these objectives.

“In Melbourne, we can source 30% of our water from desalination, and we also recycle 20% of our sewage, so we have a diversity of water sources. The planning which has achieved this has involved government interventions and some collaboration between institutions. However none of this planning involved non-market cost-benefit analysis, none of it involved what we now call integrated water strategies, and none of it involved integrated modelling,” he said.

“In terms of environmental protection, Melbourne has come a long way – there have been sewage treatment plant upgrades, there are lots of wetlands. But most of this was achieved through regulation. It has involved a lot of collaboration between organisations, but it hasn't involved non-market cost-benefit analysis, integrated water strategies, or integrated modelling.”

Furlong said although plenty of object targets had been hit, there was a substantial gap between these achievements and the contribution made by IUWM methodologies.
He notes that an important finding from the research is that it has revealed two very different perspectives on what implementing IUWM looks like.

“For some people, integrated water management means getting everyone in the room and making people talk and communicate better.

“To other people, integrated water management is a large-scale, top-down scientific planning process, where you look at all the options and you value them all in dollar terms. Then you pick the best option, and attempt to implement it.”

“The value of IUWM appears to be in promoting communication between organisations and well-structured stakeholder engagement, rather than large scale and highly detailed “integrated” plans, or complex option assessment methods.”
Furlong said different IUWM approaches will need to be identified and refined if they are to become an approach that produces significant positive outcomes.

“It is really clear that integrated water management means different things to different people,” he said.
“If it means everything, then it means nothing. 
“There isn't any empirical evidence that suggests that it has improved things. The methods have not yet been proven.

“The objectives make sense, but the technical steps need a lot more work.”
Furlong concluded his paper with the following statement: “We propose that the water sector re-evaluate its perception of IUWM, mentally separating its meaning into an ideology, objectives, and a variety of methods which can then be independently scrutinised.”