03 Nov Engineering Water 2020 – what next?
The Queensland water sector is facing major challenges and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Chiefly among these are climate change and ageing assets. Advances in technology, markets and planning may help overcome these challenges to some extent, but policy and regulatory changes may also be needed to ensure the resilience of the Queensland (and Australian) water supply in the coming decades.
FORCES IMPACTING INDUSTRY
Ageing infrastructure is a significant (and possibly the biggest) issue facing the water industry today. There are 678 municipal sewerage treatment plants across Australia, around 60 per cent of which were built between 1930 and 1980. Historically, these are structures which could be described as monolithic and virtually impenetrable, being designed to last decades.
Such robust construction often makes it difficult and expensive to adapt or repurpose the existing infrastructure, or to have them suit modern technology. It is cost and time that many asset owners cannot afford.
Another issue that will (without intervention) continue to pose difficulty for the industry is restrictive governance. Water is an essential service and therefore will always be regulated, but there is a need to reconsider how we regulate the water industry and regulate in a way that allows and encourages innovation and change. These issues with governance are compounded by the fact that regulation differs vastly from state to state.
‘…attention needs to be paid to how we navigate these changing weather patterns to ensure continuity and reliability of water supply.’
Even at the end of an asset’s serviceable life, and with the interests of a council and private entity aligned, recent experience has shown that offloading an asset to the private entity for repurposing can prove a difficult and time-consuming endeavour. Another hurdle for the water industry is, of course, climate change. As some parts of Australia get drier while others get wetter, attention needs to be paid to how we navigate these changing weather patterns to ensure continuity and reliability of water supply.
THE ‘NEXT BIG THING’ IN WATER
In light of these issues, what might be the ‘next big thing’ in the water sector? Adaptive infrastructure (adaptive thinking?) is arguably one. There is a need to look at water assets differently, not only in terms of what can be done with the existing infrastructure at the end of their serviceable lives, but also in terms of the planning and design of replacement and new infrastructure. In a word, ‘innovation’, is needed. Design engineers, it’s time to shine.
Of course, that innovation is required arguably leads to a second big thing needed, being collaborative contracting. Particularly when it comes to repurposing an aged asset, a collaborative contracting approach might be suitable as a means of tackling the challenges involved. Collaborative contracting can mean different things to different people, each with their own appetite for collaboration. It is quite valid for there to be different degrees of collaboration. No one-size model need fit all projects. However, risk being distributed more equitably and suitably, within a framework in which innovation can flourish, might be a good place to begin. This may encourage parties to tackle any risks involved, adopting a ‘we’re all in this together’ mindset.
There is a desperate need for adaptation – adapting ageing infrastructure to accommodate new technologies, adapting to climate change, adapting laws and regulations governing the water industry to best suit the needs of all stakeholders and, arguably most importantly, adapting our way of thinking.
The challenges facing the water industry are here, and they are not going away. Innovation and collaborating contracting might just be what’s needed. What is clear though, is that it will be up to engineers, perhaps the more innovative and daring among you, to solve these challenges. So who is going to step up?
LLB (Hons) GradDipLegalPrac
Ms Cairney was appointed to the Board as legal representative in April 2018. She is a projects and commercial lawyer with particular experience in project development and operational contracts in the ports, civil construction and resources sectors. She has experience both in Australia and overseas, and has advised government clients, principals, developers, contractors and operators on a wide range of major infrastructure projects. Ms Cairney is a Partner in the Brisbane office of Holding Redlich.