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The world’s media is focused on Net-Zero emissions…what about Net-Zero discharges of waste water?

By Charles Essery - posted Friday, 5 November 2021

Across the globe, climate activists, policy makers and vested interests are flying to Glasgow COP 26, having been given expensive carbon offset tickets from their employers (mainly government, funded by our taxes). This four-yearly talkfest is being ignored by the Chinese, Russians and Iranians. Apparently, they have more pressing and immediate crises surrounding the resources they need to keep their citizens content and improve their economies when the global Covid Pandemic passes.

Water is one of these resource crises that all the world’s governments are striving to resolve, with many either in a drought or supply shortage. Over the last 50 years urban water planning has been ineffective and failed to address the challenges for our cities and towns, and the productivity and environmental needs of our massive inland catchments, such as those in the Murray Darling Basin. Literally $billions have been spent on programs, infrastructure, policy initiatives and planning. National reviews by the Productivity Commission, COAG, National Water Commission, etc have been critical of the outcomes; the Murray Darling is a social, environmental, and economic mess and our capital cities are still facing supply crisis every 5-7 years.

Independent reviews over the last three decades have all given clear recommendations on potential solutions to these endless water crisis management cycles. Why are these solutions not accepted or addressed? Quite simply, it must be either: mismanagement; a lack of political will/vision; corruption; or the barriers are controlled by the multiple layers of Federal, State and Local Government bureaucrats who fear true community consultation.  I fear it is the latter, namely inefficient, constraining, government bureaucracy.


Every state capital has been churning out water strategy documents since the mid-1970s, and indeed the major urban water utilities seem to produce a revised strategy every five years. Sydney has just released its latest Draft Greater Sydney Water Strategy (GSWS) which is simply a rehash of the previous 30 years’ strategies. This time it is no longer governed by an Independent Expert Panel (which was never really independent) and is delivered via websites and webinars by the very bureaucrats that devised the strategy…the joy of the post Covid-19 world of ”Zoom-based” community engagement!

I attended one of the first webinars on 29th October 2021. It had 30-50 attendees, most of whom came from various levels of government and obviously worked with each other given the chit chat during the event. So, for a population of 5 million, only 0.00001% were involved, and the vast majority were government bureaucrats. Slides were bland and showed no detail (much like the actual GSWS document) and most questions were supportive. Three questions were not, and in every case, the bureaucrats used stale deflections to avoid answering these questions, to reduce actual criticism of their GSWS document.

Key weaknesses of the strategy include:

·        No implementation plan to identify activities and performance assessed against tangible targets

·        Lack of a total water cycle approach, instead focussing only on water supply while ignoring the management and use of wastewater; and

·        Deflection of the key issue for all cities around the world, namely the use of potable/purified recycled water…. the “honest elephant” in the room.


I support purified/potable water recycling.  I also support desalination, when it’s appropriate, as it ostensibly uses the same technology used in purified water production. In this modern technology and health driven world, countries like Singapore and the US (California and Florida) are delivering purified water as drinking water to their citizens. Meanwhile Sydney and Melbourne are following the least cost-effective strategy of desalination at greater energy/pollution cost, and hence are contributing to the “globe’s greatest existential threat” i.e. excessive use of energy. COP26 delegates should be appalled. – “How dare they?”

Capital cities in Australia do not have a shortage of water supply. Rather they just continue to apply ineffective strategies on a five-year cycle. None of these strategies have been performance-tested (i.e. did they achieve tangible goals), nor do they address the elephant in the room, namely the need to communicate, educate, discuss and assist community/customers/society to understand the key issue. Planned potable water recycling is just as healthy as, and cheaper than, desalinated water and the unplanned recycled water that water utilities have been selling us for decades through our household taps.

My following comments are related to the failings of the current draft Greater Sydney Water Strategy (GSWS), but I urge you all to examine your capital or regional city strategies. Now is the time to do this, while dams are mostly full and the current climate is in the wet part of the cycle. Waiting until the next crisis management activities of government is too late, if you want sustainable, resilient, and enduring solutions.

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About the Author

Charles Essery is an independent water consultant, who has been an Australia resident since 1990.

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