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Ageing pipes and murky waters: Urban water system issues for the 21st century

10 July 2000

Since 1998 the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been identifying critical urban water system issues and monitoring progress with the national water services review. Well-maintained water systems are the most critical of the many services that make urban living possible, yet most citizens tend to take them for granted. Improving the sustainability of our cities and towns, and ensuring our 'clean, blue and green image' is a reality, necessitates some major redesign of current infrastructure and organisational models if environmental standards are to be maintained cost-effectively.

Urban water systems

Urban water systems are the natural, modified and built water systems that exist in towns and cities. These systems are interconnected and interact in both positive and negative ways. The functions provided by the built system of water supply, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure are commonly referred to as water services. Around 85% of the population receives water, wastewater and stormwater services from local authorities. Local authority water and wastewater infrastructure is valued at approximately $7.5 billion with around $600 million spent on operational costs each year. It has been estimated that around $5 billion of investment will be required over the next 20 years to upgrade water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Key challenges

There are a number of key challenges for the management of urban water systems common to all towns and cities. They include environmental, social and economic dimensions but many of the underlying causes are interrelated and overlapping. One of the biggest challenges will be reaching consensus between the various stakeholders on the environmental, social and economic goals and values of urban water systems. Without much more extensive community input, and greater understanding of water management options, improving the sustainability of current systems will be very difficult and painfully slow.