As an environmental engineer and water specialist, working through severe droughts, bushfires and damaging flood events has shaped my thinking and personal focus on improving the resilience our communities.
Over the past few years, Australia has experienced extremely challenging climate events amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s fitting that the theme of this year’s World Water Week (23-27 August) is Building Resilience Faster.
Early in my career, I was lucky to get involved in shaping a number of forward-looking 50-year strategies to better manage water for various parts of Australia. Having adaptable long term plans in place is so important to build resilience, as they allow us to respond quickly to changes and immediate needs while balancing long term objectives.
I’ve learnt that striking this balance and building resilient water infrastructure also requires true collaboration and alignment with the community.
A fifty-year conversation
I was a young engineer on the Gold Coast during the Millennium Drought, where I first experienced how community partnerships in early planning can be a powerful force in fostering a collective focus and delivering enduring benefits.
While dam levels were worryingly low, I was fortunate to be part of a team working on a long-term water supply strategy for the City of Gold Coast. Our mandate was to develop a 50-year plan in partnership with the local community that was diverse, secure, adaptable and affordable.
The team cast the net wide for possible solutions. The standout options, from an environmental and economic perspective, often lacked community support, and the timeframe we needed to build support did not align with the urgent need to deliver water.
Although we took on conversations that were sometimes challenging, compromises needed to be made in order to build social licence. We ended up delivering a staged and adaptable plan that left the door open for future innovation and changes in community sentiment.
While dam levels are comfortably high, now is the time to work with communities to build support for the next wave of investment needed to build water resilience.
Water infrastructure for long-term
I’m fortunate to be working across numerous resilience-building projects currently that will contribute to improving water and energy security in Australia.
Community partnerships are central to the success of these projects. True partnership across government, industry and community is needed to drive the best possible outcomes.
I am a strong advocate for diversity of thought in developing resilient and adaptable solutions.
Challenges to effective partnerships
Building community partnerships and support can seem like a daunting task. There is no doubt that genuine communication and engagement takes time. However, solutions developed in isolation are far less likely to be consistently supported over the timeframe required to deliver them and will almost always end up costing more time and resources in the long run.
Shared buy-in can also minimise project risks and bring new ideas to light.
Throughout my career, I have found the following strategies effective in building strong partnerships:
- Establish two-way communication as early as possible.
- Be strategic rather than reactive.
- Take stock of growing support to tackle challenges together.
- Build support and social licence through continuous conversations.
Accelerating global water security
We are fortunate in Australia that access to clean water and resources is almost taken for granted, although recent events have shaken things up and highlighted our need to work harder at building resilience together.
Integrated water management is vital for poverty reduction, environmental protection and sustainable economic development worldwide. While the model may differ from project to project, true partnership can help us build resilience faster by creating opportunities to pool knowledge, align understanding and prioritise efforts.
Sarah Board is manager of water, dams and hydropower at engineering consultancy SMEC. She has over 20 years of experience in Australia’s water industry, specialising in infrastructure planning, delivery and asset management.