Arup and Sydney Water have produced a study to address challenges to secure and sustainable water supply into the future, with moving towards a hybrid system with more decentralisation found to lead to better outcomes for the population.

Looking at issues including population growth, increasing water scarcity and budget pressures, the study, recently launched at a Committee for Sydney workshop, maps out what major cities in Australia and globally could look like in 25 years under a range of scenarios.

The scenarios are based on two critical variables: the degree to which water systems are centralised or decentralised, and the level to which utilities cooperate among different infrastructure types, such as energy and food systems. Each scenario sees the industry move in new directions with opportunities for customers, infrastructure and governance.

As well as outlining key scenarios, The Future of Urban Water: Scenarios for Urban Water Utilities in 2040, also highlights 100 key social, economic, environmental, political and technology trends, including smart infrastructure, the ageing population, new technologies, the circular economy and climate change.

Daniel Lambert, Arup’s Australasia water leader, said the joint planning study was one of the most imaginative, forward-looking projects of its type, and could help Australian water utilities transform their operating models.

“Australia is the driest populated continent, and due to the challenges of our climate Sydney Water has successfully undertaken water efficiency and conservation programs to manage demand,” Mr Lambert said.

“As our largest city and one facing unique challenges however, it is imperative that Sydney continues to remain at the forefront of innovative thinking as to what the future of water supply may look like. This thinking should consider demand, operating models and adoption of technological innovation to ensure value is able to be realised by the community.”

One suggestion put forward was for more investment into “green infrastructure”, particularly for stormwater management, which the report said was an underutilised resource.

“Additionally, green infrastructure offers the possibility to turn waterways into parks and to provide natural capital and amenities to citizens rather than seeing water treatment as a technological process, separated from nature,” the report said. “Urban water utilities worldwide could thus shift away from water provision as hidden services towards a more visible service, a key contribution to public life.”

Mr Lambert said Arup believed moving towards a “hybrid model” – involving more decentralisation and autonomous management of water supply, greater participation of additional service providers and smarter management of the water grid – would lead to better outcomes for the population.

The Fifth Estate previously profiled a provider of decentralised water services, Flow Systems, that said it could provide its service for the same cost or less than a centralised service, with reduced energy costs and carbon emissions.

The study also looked at broader opportunities for water utilities, including energy generation and the recovery of resources from waste. According to Arup, the expertise and technology Australian water utilities could develop by moving to new models represents intellectual property that could lead to new domestic and export revenue streams.

See the full report.

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