It doesn’t require a love of classic kung-fu movies to be familiar with Bruce Lee’s timeless observation, “If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
In their original context, Lee’s words were primarily a physical meditation, but they apply equally well to the state of mind required in managing the very subject of his metaphor.
Whether it is the ongoing wrestling match over Australia’s Murray-Darling basin or the task of integrating waterways into the expensive real estate of modern cities, working with water is one of the trickiest jobs on the planet. Supply is unpredictable, the stakeholders are diverse and their interests are often diametrically opposed, meaning water professionals must be multi-skilled, broadminded and innovative.
The University of South Australia’s Centre for Sustainability Governance (CSG) conducts world-leading research in resource management, and according to the head of its water group, Professor Lin Crase, the key to balancing water’s competing priorities is keeping sight of the bigger picture.
“We’re involved in what is referred to as integrated water management,” says Crase. “People who work in water realise that, when you make a choice upstream, the impacts occur downstream. So, when we think about the thorny issues around water allocation, we need to be thinking across space and time, with the innovation being how we bring those ideas into the decision framework.”
In grappling with both immense geographies and long-term considerations, those frameworks often have to consider a number of factors that are difficult to pin down. For example, in the Murray-Darling basin, a dollar value can be derived for agricultural water allocations from reasonably precise measurements of past production, but it is much harder to put a price on environmental allocation.
Given these challenges and uncertainties, water management often requires flexible, innovative solutions, but there also needs to be an element of pragmatism. Striving for the perfect solution is always the end goal but other measures often need to be put in place while that perfect solution remains a work in progress.
“Yes, it’s complicated and it's integrated, but at the end of the day you have to come up with something that’s practical,” says Crase. “You have to look at this really complicated situation and find something that works, because the resource is needed. And you need to understand that your decisions have repercussions on others, and you have to work with people and institutions to come up with joint solutions.”
The CSG’s multi-disciplinary approach to water management clearly demonstrates the value of creative thinking in a challenging field, and as such, offers plenty of insight for businesses of all kinds.
THE VALUE OF EDUCATION
As little as 2.5 per cent of the Earth’s water is fresh, and only half of that is readily accessible for human consumption, the rest being locked away in ice or snow. Every year, the population of the planet increases by 1.1 per cent—about 75 million people—but the amount of fresh water remains more or less the same. In other words, each year, we need to stretch things a little further.
While engineering solutions aimed at preventing wastage are an integral part of that process, equally significant are programs that teach responsible water use. As is the case for many businesses, a key component of water management is shaping people’s expectations, and handling the human element is often as important as managing water itself.
“It’s about recognising that water resources are not simply the domain of engineers,” says Crase. “A lot of the process is around how you manage people and how you shape their beliefs and behaviours.”
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet when it comes to motivating water-wise behaviour, and the best solutions must be creatively developed for each situation.
One such example is the work of UniSA Professor Henning Bjornlund, who collaborates with government departments and agencies on small-scale irrigation programs in Sub-Sahara Africa.
Bjornlund’s team found a novel way to make farmers reduce their water usage through a tangible demonstration of how over-watering wastes fertilizer. They placed a simple plastic container in the soil under crops, with a tube running back to the surface so the farmers could monitor how much nutrient washed into the container.
“They didn’t really value the water,” says Bjornlund, “but the ‘plant food’, as they call it, was expensive, so as soon as we showed them that it was washing away, they reduced their watering by about half.”
Yields improved dramatically with a better water-fertilizer ratio, and, as the farms in the project use a communal irrigation system, there was also more water available for those at the end of the line.
“Everyone’s production improved, not just some people’s,” says Bjornlund. “We also found conflict in the area was reduced, and marital happiness went up.”
THE HOLISTIC APPROACH
As an integrated plan, Bjornlund’s project didn’t end at teaching farmers about leeching, with the education continuing to new crop types, improved storage and better transport. In improving water efficiency, these broader elements are just as important as reducing water use itself, because the water is only as good as the food it produces.
“I saw one project where they doubled the amount of cabbages they grew in the area, and it was a disaster,” says Bjornlund. “Suddenly, there was a glut of cabbages, the market price plummeted, transport costs went up, and the farmers actually earned less.”
Understanding these types of flow-on effects is important, but often they are not immediately apparent, as the ongoing difficulties in the Murray-Darling basin demonstrate. The area produces one-third of Australia’s food, but also has massive environmental value, and a key to current efforts to protect the basin is the development of new irrigation technology to reduce water wastage.
However, as Crase points out, it is quite possible that improving irrigation will have flow-on effects that are actually negative for the environment.
“The difficulty here is that when irrigation water is supposedly ‘saved’ by new infrastructure, little regard is given to where it was previously ‘leaking’. Then the water that was leaking to the environment ceases to flow.”
REGULATION FOR INNOVATION
Striving for best-practice solutions makes sense in the Australian context, but it doesn’t automatically apply to other parts of the world.
Developing nations, for instance, present quite different challenges. Here, hydropower projects have emerged as a favoured solution to the double demands of sustainable energy and water security.
The appeal of such dam projects is that they offer an accessible and cost-effective form of clean energy, cheaper to establish than solar or wind by 50 per cent. While this is a considerable advantage for cash-strapped economies, hydropower also presents a much greater risk than other renewables.
“One person’s dam can become many people’s disaster,” says Associate Professor John Pisaniello. “If a dam is poorly planned or badly managed, it can pose a massive threat to the environment and to human life.”
Pisaniello is currently working with the World Bank on a comparative assessment of dams management and regulation in 51 countries. Their goal is to establish regulatory models and guidelines that balance the need for appropriate safety standards with what can be realistically achieved in the developing world.
“Aiming for best practices straight away is too extreme in many cases, as a lot of these countries don’t have the resources to make this happen,” says Pisaniello. “It's more about coming up with a continuum approach, where you start from minimum practice, and as the country develops and they upscale resources and capacity, then they can move towards best practice on the spectrum.”
While these examples provide salient lessons, not all flow on effects are negative, and thinking creatively about the consequences of water management can often introduce multi-dimensional benefits.
Dr Joanne Tingey-Holyoak is working to help farmers make sense of moisture and climate data they receive on their properties.
“Farmers have a lot of soil sensors and water meters, but it's not much use to their profitability as it’s not linked to their financial decision making. We’re developing software that links soil and climate data to farm financials, to better demonstrate productivity. We want it to be as simple as an alert that pops up on their phone to say, ‘If you water at 5 p.m. it's going to cost you a lot more than if you do it now.’”
Motivated by a bottom-line value, there is great interest in this program as a solution for individual farmers. Yet, Tingey-Holyoak suggests it also offers other benefits. “Once we have enough individuals running their data into the program, we can network them to create a big picture of the moisture conditions of an entire region. That will really help policy decisions.”
Similarly, Professor Jeff Connor is working on a development project with the South Australian government where the indirect benefits may be as valuable as the goals.
“The State is wanting to become carbon-neutral, and part of that is off-setting the carbon,” says Connor. “So, they’re exploring how to invest in carbon sequestration so it provides the most benefit.
One simple answer is, if you plant the right trees in the right place, they not only soak up carbon, but they also filter your water. This means that Water SA has lower water treatment costs and doesn't have to invest in further new capital.”
The involvement of the World Bank in water management is a good indication of just how important a resource it is, and moving forward, that importance is only going to increase as the effects of climate change and population growth compound.
Recent moves in Australia towards a clearly defined water market suggest that economic models can provide an incentive for more efficient water use in difficult circumstances.
“There’s good evidence that during the last drought, water trading in the Murray-Darling allowed the water to move around in beneficial ways,” says Connor.
“People that couldn’t make much money out of farming, traded it to those who had high value perennial crops like vines or trees, which would have died otherwise.”
This type of economic thinking is also expanding beyond agriculture, to help define some of the less tangible benefits of water for humanity. Dr Bethany Cooper is working to quantify the value of environmental water in an urban context. Her work is recognition of the fact that, as long as water is regulated as a market commodity, any water use that doesn’t have a dollar value is likely to be neglected.
“It is important for water managers to consider non-market values when making investment decisions,” says Cooper. “For instance, environmental water entitlements are not given a dollar value when choices are made about urban developments. So, treating such values as a 'commodity' at least brings them into the equation.”
Given the level of competition that exists over the tangible uses of water, it’s not surprising that its less concrete functions can be overlooked. Thankfully, in the complex business of water management, the simple pleasures are starting to be taken seriously.
“You know,” says Crase, “there’s a large amount of literature that says, psychologically, people get enormous benefit from sitting next to a stream. That’s something that definitely deserves to be thought about along with everything else.”