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Actual sustainable water solutions for Australian urban communities

By Charles Essery - posted Friday, 10 December 2021

Since Federation, Australia has faced and failed to developstrategies for resolving the seemingly unresolvable issue facing Australian water utilities, namely: future planning and delivery of sustainable water strategies that will deliver resilient, safe, secure water cycle management for our urban populations in a manner that produces minimal impact on the environment (land, rivers, estuaries and ocean).While most of us live on the coastal rim of Australia, inland regions are equally impacted, particularly in the Murray Darling Basin.

Over the last 30 years I have worked with small regional water utilities who seem to understand the one thing that the major utilities and government bureaucrats can't grasp, namely the difference between strategy and tactics. I did work for and with NSW's major utilities, but they chose to ignore suggestions and, to date, themajor utilities have dodged addressing the challenge. Every government state-owned corporation/authority produces strategy documents at great expense, yet are they strategies?

Strategy is "what". Tactics the "how". About 2,500 years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote "The Art of War." In it, he said, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." We need both strategy and tactics working as a team. The simplest definition of the difference between strategy and tactics is: "strategy is done above the shoulders, tactics are done below the shoulders". Most if not every strategist I have come across in Australian water utilities are most definitely physically and mentally happy being well below the shoulder! Quite simply it's safer, no need to be brave or visionary, usually it's secure and not likely to termination of employment for being either forthright or incompetent i.e. perfect bureaucrats that "Sir Humphrey" would be proud to recommend to the "club" for membership.


The water cycle is the simplest and most visible cycle around us. However, in the world of utilities and politics our interaction seems usually to be de-prioritised and drops down to endless crisis management.

My approach to Sustainable Water Cycle Management (SWCM) is very straightforward, transparent and most importantly embedded with measurable, attainable performance measures, forming a management/goverance perspective in which organisations and management are accountable for the success of delivery (Sir Humprey is shuddering in his grave). In layman's terms SWCM goes like this:

1. Assess the catchment context your utility sits within

2. Deteremine the issues facing that region, up and downstream

3. Identify your current impacts on others and the environment

4. Decide the outcomes/specifications for sucesss, including all stakeholders


5. Analyse the social and environmnetal outcomes of a range of scenarios (commonly known an triple bottom line) including capital, operational and lifecycle costs

6. Evaluate and agree with stakehlders including those impacted upstream, downsteam and outside the catchment where intra and inter catchment transfers may occur, either water or other resources

7. Announce and commit to the chosen scenario and then implement the strategy, using tactics developed to deliver the strategy

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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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