Where Has All The Certainty Gone?
On Thursday 16th I attended the AWA NSW State Conference and came away with this one question: Where did all the certainty go? Every presentation I went to had something to say about change, about stepping “into the grey”, about “risk on risk” or “unknown unknowns”. I arrived at the conference knowing that managing water is complex. I departed with a new respect for just what that complexity looks like. Here are some of my highlights from the day, with a focus on the increasing uncertainty of the future of water. They represent my recollection and interpretations, so please don’t take them as a gospel version of what was said.
Jim Bentley, MD of Hunter Water, in his keynote spoke about the need to shift the culture from compliance to something new and emergent. In the face of disruption HW is seeking to play a positive role in the life and growth of the region. This means working with others across the region, understanding what they need and stepping together from the certainty of pipes and pumps “into the grey” of learning with stakeholders. Just what that looks like, time will tell. And how we do it? Watch this space.
Dan Berry of Water NSW described how the organisation grapples with the uncertainties inherent in managing bulk water and the system around that, particularly through drought. Just when things seem under control an external circumstance, such as the rapid growth of mining in the Hunter, increases regional demand and throws up new challenges. The world’s economy isn’t getting any more predictable, and neither is the climate, so Water NSW can expect the unexpected as a matter of course.
University of Newcastle academic Anthony Kiem took uncertainty to another level, presenting his analysis of paleo-climate data. Anthony suggests that the ‘normal’ climate is in fact more variable than our 100 years of measurement might indicate. The 1000-year record includes decades-long droughts and epochs of great rains. What would a 40-yr drought do for water supply today and how do our planners incorporate that scale of possibility into the system? Add the global warming overlay and the uncertainty ramps up more.
I watched Anthony’s presentation sitting beside Peter Miller of NSW Treasury. I couldn’t help but wonder what planning for this level of climate uncertainty may mean for the State and national budgets, and for all of us as taxpayers.
Emma Berry of Hunter Water presented on their Water Resilience program, building on Jim’s morning talk. Emma tells us that resilience is a function of adaptive capability and robustness: R = f(r,A). This applies not just to HW but to the whole community, so the question is, how does a water company work differently with the community to maximise collective resilience? HW are trying lots of great ideas, but clearly there is little about it that is certain and the ways forward must emerge in the face of this complex set of challenges.
After lunch it was all about potable reuse, which we all know is where certainty goes to die. Ian Law from IBL Solutions, Wayne Beatty from Orange Council and David Sheehan from Coliban Water each gave terrific presentations on their particular experiences. I was struck by the sense that the technology is pretty good at dealing with microbial contaminants but perhaps less so with chemicals. I hadn’t realised the complexity of that problem, which must make it more challenging when talking to the community about safety. Ian provided a great overview of what is possible. Wayne showed us how Orange City have made it happen while David highlighted the importance of that small intersecting space between regulation, technology and community education. Uncertainty in each of those circles multiplies the uncertainty of the whole. Yet if drought is becoming more common, companies and communities must learn to grapple successfully with these issues.
The panel in the afternoon discussed the challenges of managing risk and – you guessed it – uncertainty. Andrew Francis of Centroc, Dr Nicola Nelson of Sydney Water, Karen Campisano of WSAA, Andrew Graddon of Newcastle Uni and Darren Cleary of Hunter Water talked about “risk on risk”; that is, risks that add to or multiply other risks. Across the sector uncertainties come in all shapes and sizes. In the West a great challenge is finding the workers. Another is ongoing structural reform in local government, meaning the picture is more complex than ever. Technological disruption is rampant. Community expectations change by the minute. For example, in several jurisdictions there is a push on to allow access to water storages for recreational use.
Panelists agreed that the need to collaborate was more important than ever. Partnering with stakeholders, communities and other utilities to find new ways to respond to emerging challenges seems to be the way of the future.
That was about as far as I got in the day; a day full of insights and information. But there is no doubt that the one word ringing in my head as I drove home was ‘uncertainty’. Where has all the certainty gone, and more importantly, how does the water sector build the skill sets and mind sets that are required to function effectively in the grey of complexity? Perhaps that’s a discussion for the next conference.
This blog was originally published on Twyfords on 17 August 2018.
Dealing with uncertainty in water will be a key discussion topic during the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition, 16-21 September 2018, Tokyo, Japan.
Besides keynote plenaries, here are a few technical sessions that will attentively focus on strategies water systems and cities are adopting to pursue resilience under increasing levels of uncertainty.
Technical Session on Modelling for Decision Support
- Sharing Pipeline Inspection Data And GISsystem Data:Pipeline Management By Mutual Interchange Of Big Data In The Future
- Understanding Model Complexity And Model Accuracy Through Uncertainty Analysis In Urban Water Modelling
- Statistical Forecasting Of Norovirus Concentration In Sewage As An Indicator Of Future Incidence
- A Computational Tool To Facilitate Generation Of Input Data For QMRA Modelling Of A Drinking Water Distribution Network
Technical Session on Resilience
Thursday 20 September, 2018 / From 10:30 to 12:00 / Location: 08 Room 606
- Future Proofing Urban Water Systems Under Uncertainty: A Resilience Assessment Approach
- A Global Service For Tailored Hydrological Climate Change Impact Assessment: Application To Floods And Drought In Tokyo
- Europe’s Global Water Demand And Its Vulnerability To Weather Extremes
- Planning For Deep Uncertainty: Using Adaptive Pathways To Create Resilient Strategies