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The politics of water projects

Adeline Teoh
August 9, 2011

The proliferation of water projects is more than a climate change trend; these projects are necessary to maintain our way of life. No resource has ever been so precious, so public, or so political.

Drought, floods, water restrictions and acknowledgement of climate change are the obvious factors responsible for Australia’s shift in stance regarding water. As the driest inhabited continent on earth, it’s amazing to see some of the thirstiest industries on our shores, such as agriculture and the resources sector. As governments scramble for solutions and cities impose restrictions on household use, it isn’t surprising to note that water projects are the flavour of the decade.

Apart from the engineering and logistics involved in building treatment plants and infrastructure, the challenge for water projects is its very public nature and the political intricacies of water management. Mike Young is the research chair in Water Economics and Management at the University of Adelaide. He believes there’s more to water management than just management of the sources, that it is also management of the change process encompassing the economic and governance aspects.

“Many entitlements were first issued in a developmental era when water resources were relatively abundant and were not defined to manage scarcity, interconnectivity and climate change,” he says. “Given the circumstances Australia now finds itself in, there may be a need to adjust much more quickly than envisaged when existing water resource plans were put together. It may be advantageous to consider improving plans, entitlement systems and entitlement registers simultaneously.”

Young refers to a tour he took of the Murray-Darling Basin, where people were seeking a water management and allocation system that was “more consistent, more responsive, more transparent, more communicative and better able to adjust to change”. The difficulty, he notes, is that water sources do not heed jurisdictional boundaries. Even foregoing that aspect, the system needs to be built from the start. “What elements should be administered nationally, what at basin level, and what at the catchment or regional level?

“Arguably, administrative arrangements that seek to increase the productivity and efficiency of water use at the national level are best decided at that level,” Young suggests. “As a general principle, connected water bodies are better managed as a single inter-dependent system. Without such an arrangement, administrative processes tend to be slow and cumbersome, can fail to recognise critical system wide changes, and may incur unnecessarily high costs.”

Public works

While some project managers ponder the implementation process for systematic change, there are other, more public, concerns about water solutions. Although water restrictions attempt to control demand, many cities and councils have aired their opinions trying to decide where they will source their supply and how best to ensure that source is sustainable.

It is a debate commonly shrouded in controversy. In 2006, the Queensland city of Toowoomba voted in a referendum about the city’s water future. The majority of its residents, over 60 percent, voted against using recycled sewage for potable water.

An activist group, Citizens Against Drinking Sewage, cited health and tourism reasons for running against the proposal. “We agree with the yuk factor—Yet Unknown Khemicals,” said spokesperson Rosemary Morely at the time. “We have examples where experts have told us thalidomide was safe, Teflon was a recent one and the asbestos debate. We all thought those things were safe and went along that road and we’re paying enormous prices now.”

This is the environment in which many a project manager will be required to bring a project together. Dealing with all levels of government while simultaneously handling the public requires a high degree of diplomacy, especially on water projects that Australia needed years ago. While other projects have experienced this pressure, none have quite the urgency or the range of competing opinions as water does.

Christian Uhrig, chief marketing officer at water recycling company EcoNova, says the Toowoomba referendum was a case of recycled wastewater being misrepresented for political purposes. “The locals wanted it to fail, therefore all the communication was designed to make it fail. Water has been the number one reason for human and socio-economic development and water schemes through our country are used to subsidise other schemes, so it’s very political. Every state has it slightly different so it’s important to understand and deal with that individually.

“There’s nothing standing in the way other than legislation, regulation and mindset. That will be overcome because the benefits are so significant,” he adds confidently.

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Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of ProjectManager.com.au. She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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