Sustainable Urban Water Systems: Issues and Opportunities

This report was produced for the Urban Water Research Association of Australia, a now discontinued research program.

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Sustainable Urban Water Systems: Issues and Opportunities

Report no. UWRAA 116

March 1997


This report presents a very broad review of contemporary challenges faced by the urban water sector in the context of a changing local and global economy and environment. It covers a broad spectrum of issues associated with the link between the concept of sustainability (or ecologically sustainable development), cities and water.


Ecologically sustainable development has emerged as a clarion for a new era. It aims to provide ways to facilitate integration of economic, social and ecological factors in decision making to tackle poverty and environmental collapse. It has emerged in response to a growing recognition of the inter-relationship between these issues, but primarily has been driven from an environmental perspective. There are many definitions of ESD which reflect a diversity of world views, from technocentric to ecocentric. Although this is the case, the key point that needs to be recognised is that the concept of ESD reflects an evolving ethic which is replacing the idea of ‘progress’.

While ESD presents many challenges, the most fundamental seems to be ensuring that new values are enculturated into society and the capacity for change, innovation and adaptability is enhanced. This will aid in developing the much needed political support for ESD at a broad community level. It also needs to be remembered that often real change and innovation comes from those who ignore“ conventional rationality, who enable the system to creatively respond to new challenges” (Hollick 1991: 4). Thus a key feature of society must be the development of a willingness to adapt to change and uncertainty. But that willingness to change must be developed through processes which encourage society to choose its future, rather than reacting to it.


Urban sustainability is increasingly being seen as the focus for ESD strategies because cities are the major economic structure of society. The massive growth of urbanisation means that sustainability of human settlements will be essential in achieving key global ESD objectives – of reducing poverty and providing adequate shelter for the Earth’s rapidly growing population.

In devising strategies aimed at urban sustainability, a starting point has been conceptualising the city as an ecosystem. This provides the basis for devising strategies aimed at minimising stresses to source and sink environments. These types of strategies have sometimes been referred to as urban ecology or ecosystem approaches. Strategies for urban sustainability can operate at a‘ repairing’ or ‘preventative’ mode and at a ‘partial’ or ‘structural’ level depending upon the focus of concern. To facilitate urban sustainability, policies which encourage both new urban forms and new urban technologies are seen as important ingredients for urban sustainability.


The key urban water issues that need to be addressed in the context of any strategies for urban sustainability are:

· The provision of safe water and wastewater services

· Increasing costs of a growing and ageing water infrastructure

· Increasing per capita and total water consumption

· A reduction in the number and quality of urban and near-urban water environments

· Significant disruption to the natural water balance

These issues have origins that are historical, political, technical, financial and institutional. They are embedded in the fabric of urban life, institutions and urban form and are a consequence of the so-called “Big pipes in – Big pipes out” approach to urban water management which has evolved from 19thcentury responses to the industrial city.

The emergence of these problems is not new, but the scale has now reached proportions where solutions are required that involve new ways of thinking. A range of responses has been developed. The shift to commercialisation and establishment of new legislative structures can assist with cost saving but may not deal with sustainability issues unless incorporated firmly into regulatory processes. Sustainability requires new water quality strategies, demand management, pricing reform, public consultation processes, water efficiency strategies and urban integrated catchment management, where greater emphasis is placed on localised management and technology.

The document concludes with some examples of these integrating processes, emerging technologies and economic tools which present opportunities yet to be fully realised. But achieving the benefits of these mechanisms, in the context of increasing pressure for commercialisation, will require a fundamental shift in the business focus of water utilities. It is argued their best strategy is for these organisations to shift their focus from notions of ‘economies of scale ’to a focus on ‘economies scope’, where their future, in whatever shape they are transformed into, is in the provision of integrated water management services and not simply the provision of water and wastewater in traditional ways.

There is a world demanding innovative water management solutions and Australia is well placed to become a leader in this field. What is sorely needed is a vigorous program of demonstration of innovative ideas, decision making processes, strategies and technologies, most of which are already available, but have not been tested in any meaningful way. The institutionalisation of the ‘new paradigm’ requires an unprecedented willingness to integrate the skills and resources that are already available. No longer should good ideas be killed off on the basis the argument that it is simply a matter of the willingness of professionals, the agencies they represent and the community to ‘integrate’ and come up with more sustainable solutions.

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