Ditch the Desal Plants; Cities Are Their Own Water Catchments, Says CRCWSC

After more than seven years as chief executive officer Professor Tony Wong has stepped down from the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities and its Water Sensitive Cities Institute. However, his involvement with both organisations is far from over. The Fifth Estate talks to Professor Wong about what the CRC has achieved since it was established in 2012.


When a team of interdisciplinary researchers got together back in 2010 to prepare a pitch for federal government funding to study water sensitive cities, almost every major Australian capital city was in an extended drought.

But then the rains came with a vengeance, most notably in Queensland, where devastating flash floods took the lives of people in Toowoomba, and in the nearby Lockyer Valley.

It was a year that highlighted to governments the vulnerability of Australia’s urban environments to climate extremes, not just drought but also floods, remembers one of those researchers, Professor Tony Wong, who is internationally recognised for his research and practice in sustainable urban water management.

It was time to think about how to equip cities with better levels of resilience through good urban design, he tells The Fifth Estate.

What emerged from those discussions in 2012 was a CRC for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC) led by Monash University’s Professor Wong and including other academics from Monash, the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland.

Cities should operate as their own water supply catchments and provide ecosystems services

The CRCWSC is based around two key concepts. First, is the assertion that cities should operate as their own water supply catchments. The second is that cities can provide ecosystems services, that is, the built environment can supplement and support the function of the natural environment.

“It became a bit of a catch cry for us,” says Wong. “Cities as water supply catchments. It’s about water recycling, storm water harvesting, using water multiple times and so on.

“It became a major focus too [for the CRC] in terms of the resources in a city that mix with the water supply, and how to harness them recognising that cities’ ongoing renewal is done in a patchwork way.

“We have really learned a lot from the notion that the traditional way our cities are designed and built [is based on] water supply as a plug-in rather than looking at how a city functions as it owns water supply catchment.

“It was around this time we really appreciated the trend towards greater urban densification and the issue of the quality and liveability of cities as an emerging significant challenge.”

The role of the water industry in city growth – with annual revenue of about $15 billion and assets worth more than an estimated $120 billion – can’t be underestimated.

Densification remains viable

In the next 15 years, billions of dollars of capital investment will be made in urban water infrastructure, which is why it was important for the CRCWSC to partner with local and state government, water infrastructure operators, urban planners, and the housing sector.

Wong says if we want to avoid more urban sprawl, densification remains the best way to increase a city’s population. However, it comes with new challenges such as the heat island effect, loss of vegetation, and lack of biodiversity.

That’s why any blueprint for urban renewal must direct investment to multiple outcomes and act as a catalyst to transform cities, he says.

“Global research has shown that any initiative to green a city influences the ability to cool a city. Cities going through greater heat wave conditions really do need a greening strategy but greening a city requires water.”

Desalination plants and other business-as-usual habits are pricey

And under a business-as-usual blueprint – that includes more desalination plants, new dams – water is becoming more expensive. 

“We spend a lot of money building desalination plants. The trick is not to build the next one. Desalination now provides a great safety net for the population we have today. If we are looking at new development and introduce initiatives that reflect the city as a water supply catchment, then we would never have to build another desalination plant.”

As a city is transformed, bit by bit, with urban renewal projects, major water recycling and storm water harvesting can be introduced, landscapes can be designed to direct water where it’s most needed (not down street gutters and out to sea), even local sporting fields can act as water retention sites during localised flooding.

Are policy makers and politicians listening?

“In the early years of the CRC, the penny dropped for a lot of private developers and government that they need to think about how to avoid altogether, if possible, major plant infrastructure investment to support what is largely a patchwork of urban densification,” Wong says.

He says if you search water policies for the phrase “water sensitive cities” you will find the concept is “permeating right through all levels of government”.

“Sydney Water now has a water sensitive cities policy; the Victorian government has a state policy related to it; Western Australia has a waterwise policy that was very much driven by the CRCWSC; the Gold Coast just rolled out its water policy, it worked closely with us.

“There are inroads. I am not saying we have solved all the problems but … there is a clear line of sight.”

Fishermans Bend operates like a water supply catchment

One of the biggest urban renewal projects the CRCWSC has been involved with is Fishermans Bend, which covers about 480 hectares in the heart of Melbourne and which, by 2050, will be home to about 80,000 residents.

Wong says the precinct has become one that operates like a water supply catchment, with major sewer mining operating as a new source of water to avoid the need for major infrastructure augmentation, for example.

A greening the city plan overlays the water catchment plan, helping with flood management among other things, in the flood prone Fishermans Bend precinct.

“When you design cities, not only do you need to transform them to become water supply catchments and water resilient, you can design them to cool, to improve the quality and provide a level of ecosystems services that cities don’t do traditionally.

“A lot of the work we have done looks at the relationship between green infrastructure and water quality improvement, flood management and heat mitigation. Vegetation can control water flow, parks can have multiple roles … park verges can be wetlands that cleanse water and create more biodiversity.

Benchmarks achieved

“[It’s about] bringing nature back into the city, not just as an ornament but as a highly functional initiative.”

The CRCWSC winds up next year but its Water Sensitive Cities Institute will continue the legacy of the CRC’s work, inheriting and realising the CRC’s intellectual property.

The institute’s successful consultancy arm will continue to generate income from national and international work.

“I am completely overwhelmed by the level of success that we have had,” Wong says, noting that the CRC had set four key outcomes: quality science, equipping industry with tools and knowledge; influencing corporate and government policy, and; finally, “the Holy Grail”, influencing projects on the ground.

“Aquarevo [in Victoria], our projects in China, in Bentley in WA and now Fishermans Bend, are examples of how we have been able to influence projects on the ground where millions of dollars of investments have been guided by our work,” he says.

“Across all four measures I am absolutely delighted with how the CRC is going.”

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Source: The Fifth Estate

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