Responding to Climate Change Impacts on Water Resources and Management: Insights from Australia

Silvia Serrao-Neumann

The University of Waikato Griffith University

Hannah Jozaei

The University of Waikato


Water resource management systems across the world are facing serious challenges in effectively responding to current and future challenges as a result of climate change, including in urban areas. On the one hand, rapid urbanization and the high level of rural-urban migration combined with overall population growth are increasing the demand for water in urban areas (McDonald et al., 2011). On the other hand, climate change impacts and increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and sea-level rise are posing significant pressure on urban water systems and the corresponding infrastructure (1PCC, 2014). Hence, it is imperative that urban water management systems effectively respond to the complex dynamics and uncertainty relating to climate change.

Research shows that the modern urban water planning and development have been mainly shaped by reductionist, technocratic, and command and control approaches, with a particular focus on prescribing engineering and hard solutions to complex problems (known as ‘dam and pipes’ solution) (Brown, Keath, & Wong, 2009; Dunn, Brown, Bos, & Bakker, 2017; Head, 2014). For example, for decades, finding new water supply resources and developing complex infrastructure such as large dams, pipelines, and treatment plants were considered key solutions to solve water scarcity problems.

These reductionist water resource management approaches are not adequate to deliver effective responses in the era of Anthropocene (Olsson, Moore, Westley, & McCarthy, 2017). In particular, scholars (O'Brien, 2012; Pahl-Wostl, Becker, Knieper, & Sendzimir, 2013; Siders, 2019) indicate a need for a change of paradigm and developing anticipatory governance and management approaches that fit the complexity of decision-making under the uncertainty of climate change impacts and the transitioning dynamics of a social-ecological system (SES). A change in the water resource management paradigm may include more adaptive and flexible approaches that allow for innovative and diverse solutions created by interdisciplinary and collaborative mechanisms. These approaches are more likely to generate a diverse range of technical and non-technical options to absorb, prevent, or mitigate the uncertain impacts of risks; facilitate system recovery after disturbance; and consequently enhance system resilience (Wong & Brown, 2009). In parallel, anticipatory governance can account for change and uncertainty and develop flexible strategies that allow for learning, novelty, adaptability, and transformability (Folke et ah, 2010; Pahl-Wostl et ah, 2013).

Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM), Sustainable Urban Water Management, and Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) have been suggested as examples of potentially effective means towards a more adaptive urban water management regime (Pahl-Wostl, 2008; Wong & Brown, 2009). In these frameworks, the components of an urban water system (including the physical infrastructure, ecological components, and social structures) are seen as integrated parts of a complex adaptive system, which dynamically interacts with others and with their context.

In this chapter, we focus on South East Queensland, Australia, as a case study to analyze responses to two extreme weather events including the Millennium Drought (1997-2007) and the 2010-2011 flood event. To this end, the chapter examines several initiatives implemented by the state and local governments to mitigate the impacts of droughts and floods with a focus on the relevant infrastructure development. Lessons are then extracted to contribute insights for future climate change adaptation strategies in other regions in Australia and elsewhere.

The Case Study Area

The South East Queensland (SEQ) administrative region covers approximately 22,300 km2 and contains 75% of Queensland’s population (Queensland Government Statistician’s Office, 2019) (see Figure 3.1). Most of the water consumption in SEQ comprises residential urban water uses (Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2016). SEQ’s urban water supply assets constructed during the Millennium Drought are valued at AU$11 billion and include large infrastructure projects such as dams, weirs, conventional water treatment plants, a desalination plant, a recycled water scheme, and a water grid which connects water supplies and transports treated water around the region (SEQwater, 2018). These were built to complement the previous water supply infrastructure which comprised several large and small dams.

Since the 1970s, SEQ has experienced rapid population growth and expanded on low-lying, least constraint floodplains to meet the demand of its fast-growing urban population (Harper & Granger, 2001). Rapid economic and population growth have led to significant changes in land uses across the region, which has resulted in a fragmented landscape with severe environmental impacts on the freshwater resources (Spe- arritt, 2008). Between 1980 and 2000, sustainable development and integrated water resources management attracted national interest in response to water and environmental quality deterioration due to over-consumption of subsidized water, unsustainable farming practices, and poor land management across the country. Consequently, the need for water reform was recognized by the federal government resulting in the development of several intergovernmental agreements, including the National Water Initiative (Council of Australian Governments, 2004), to increase cooperation and collaboration across states, territories, and regions for sustainable development.

Location of the study area

Figure 3.1 Location of the study area.

Following the national water reform initiatives and the Millennium Drought, urban water reform became a more pressing issue in Queensland and SEQ resulting in the implementation of new institutional arrangements (Harman & Wallington, 2010).

Before the Millennium Drought, the provision of urban water services in SEQ was the responsibility of local governments and divided among 18 local authorities. Urban water planning in response to population growth and water demand was ad-hoc planned within local government boundaries. These highly fragmented water institutional arrangements were arguably unable to adopt regional water planning and technical innovations in supply and demand management to respond to water challenges. In this respect, a series of legislation, policies, and new institutional arrangements were developed and implemented in SEQ to increase the collaboration and partnership across stakeholders (Harman & Wallington, 2010). For example, the Water Act 2000 created a legislative basis and a framework for sustainable water resources planning at the catchment level to meet sustainable development requirements. The Council of Mayors and the Healthy Waterways Partnership increased collaboration between different stakeholders to improve the health of waterways and catchments across the region.

Nevertheless, as the prolonged drought led to a water crisis, the attention shifted from broader water resources to water supply planning to meet the short- and medium-term water demands. The need for more and faster fundamental changes in water service arrangements was perceived as an urgent issue to expedite the delivery of initiatives and infrastructure development projects. In response, the state government developed a set of legislation (e.g., the Water Amendment Act 2006 and the Water Supply Act 2008) to centralize water responsibilities and facilitate the urban water market. The Queensland

Water Commission was established to inform the government on several issues including water security initiatives and water institutional reforms. The main institutional reforms occurred between 2006 and 2010, including transferring water responsibilities of local governments to four state-owned agencies to optimize cost and efficiencies and local government amalgamation (Harman & Wallington, 2010).

Climate Change Projections for SEQ

SEQ has a subtropical climate (hot wet summers and cooler dry winters) with high climate variability. Local factors (such as local topography), as well as broader scale drivers (such as El Nino-La Nina Southern Oscillation), influence the climatic regime and precipitation patterns in the area. Extreme events such as floods, cyclones, and drought have been the prominent features of SEQ’s climate for centuries (Barr et al., 2019). Climate change projections for SEQ include an increase in average temperature in all seasons, more frequent hot days, higher evaporation, longer drought, and more intense extreme rainfall events (Dowdy et al., 2015). Climate change scenarios also indicate that SEQ’s water reservoirs are more likely to receive lower inflows in the future while the demand for water would still increase (Queensland Water Commission, 2010). These projections indicate a potential decline in water security in the future for the region.

The Millennium Drought

The Millennium Drought occurred between 1997 and 2007 and caused the most severe and prolonged drought on record in the SEQ region. The combined dam levels dropped from 100% in 2000 to 16% in 2007. This led to a range of government responses, including organizational reforms and a range of hard techno-engineering projects and soft adaptation measures (Heberger, 2011). The initial response focused on reducing water consumption through local and regional water restrictions on outdoor water consumption. As the drought worsened, the government released a water strategy with a broader portfolio of measures on supply augmentation and demand management to address water shortages and secure future supplies (Laves et al., 2014; Queensland Water Commission, 2010). The main capital investments of the strategy centered around large and centralized engineering projects. An AU$7 billion regional water grid was developed to connect 12 main existing dams in the region to transfer water among catchments. A seawater desalination plant (Tugun) and the Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme (WCRWS) were constructed as climate independent water supplies to increase the resilience of the water sector to climate variability. The strategy also proposed the construction of several new dams and weirs, reactivation of some old dams, and raising the level of some dams. Most of these infrastructure projects were built between 2006 and 2009.

Key Responses

Key responses to the Millennium Drought were shaped around hard engineering projects (e.g., desalination plants and wastewater recycling) and soft options (e.g., programs targeting water usage efficiency). For this chapter, only three large infrastructure projects are analyzed to distill their effectiveness in dealing with climate change uncertainty. THE WESTERN CORRIDOR RECYCLED WATER SCHEME

This project was proposed to deliver 232 ML/D A class purified potable water from six existing wastewater treatment plants in the region. In the early stages of the planning process in 2006, a decision was made to build a non-potable water purification facility. However, the lack of contracted customers for high-cost manufactured water led to a change of the original plan to provide a purified potable water recycling facility instead. A referendum was suggested to ascertain the public acceptance of introducing recycled water into the region’s largest water supply (Wivenhoe Dam), but this was canceled in face of a significant fall in the dam’s level in 2006 and 2007. The AU$2.4 billion projects were completed in October 2008, but media attack, public opposition, and disappearing sense of urgency pushed the new government to delay feeding the recycled water into the reservoir. From 2009 to 2012, the WCRWS operated well below its capacity (between 50% and 10%) and supplied water only for industrial uses. Finally, the government mothballed the WCRWS in 2012 and announced it as a standby option for future emergency situations (Carr, Marsden, & Jacob, 2012). THETUGUN DESALINATION PLANT

During the Millennium Drought, many Australian cities commissioned the construction of multi-billion dollar and intensive-energy desalination plants, including the Gold Coast in the SEQ region. The Tugun (Gold Coast) desalination plant was strongly supported by the state and local governments as a climate-resilient option. The plant, which aimed to supply 125 ML of water per day for the SEQ water network, was completed in 2 years (2006A2008) and cost about AU$1 billion. In 2009, after an increase in the precipitation rates and due to the high cost of water manufacturing, the Tugun desalination plant, similar to other structures in the country, was deactivated and placed in standby mode. The state government declared it as a ready option to meet the future needs without addressing any of its maintenance and outdated technology costs (Turner et ah, 2007). THE TRAVESTON DAM

The Traveston Dam proposal reflected the quality of crisis-driven decision-making when no long-term planning exists. In 2006, Traveston Crossing was proposed as a potential site on the Mary River (which was outside the SEQ region) for constructing a new dam at a cost of AU$1.8 billion. This expensive and energy-intensive project, with negative impacts on both natural habitats and displacement of rural populations, provoked widespread community objection. Despite the broad public and scientific criticism, the proposal was carried out by the government. However, due to its threat to listed threatened species and communities, the federal government interfered and invalidated the proposal in 2009, after AU$600 million was spent in the preliminary stages of the project (Laves et ah, 2014; Turner et ah, 2007). WATER USAGE EFFICIENCY PROGRAMS

Following critical drops in the dam’s levels in 2006, and to buy time to deliver the planned hard infrastructure, the government introduced a series of demand management programs to control and enhance water consumption. Although the state government had water conservation programs in place since the mid-1990s, efficiency in water consumption did not considerably improve until the application of a portfolio of demand management programs. The comprehensive and innovative approaches in the program, as well as the sense of urgency among the government and the community, made this program one of the state’s most successful responses in conserving water and improving the usage efficiency (Turner et ah, 2007; Walton & Hume, 2011).

The 2010–2011 Floods

In 2010, shortly after the drought was declared over in SEQ, a severe flood affected 78% of the state and caused catastrophic impacts including several casualties (Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry, 2012; The World Bank & Queensland Reconstruction Authority, 2011). The large Wivenhoe Dam, which was constructed after the 1974 flood to mitigate and control future floods, was unsuccessful in saving Brisbane from major flooding. An extensive investigation by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry (2012) revealed that a fundamental shift was needed in government approaches to flood risk and disaster management, and a detailed list of recommendations was proposed to respond to insufficient flood planning in the SEQ region. Similar to water supply planning, flood management options in the SEQ region had a particular focus on hard engineering solutions such as large dams, levees, underground piping, and drainage systems. The Wivenhoe Dam was built on the Brisbane River to mitigate flood risk and secure water supply for Brisbane City, which are two conflicting purposes. The huge size of the dam elevated the expectations about its flood control capacity among decision-makers and the community (Head, 2014; Heazle et ah, 2013). Consequently, after it failed to save Brisbane during the 2010-2011 flood event, concerns were raised regarding the mismanagement of the dam before and during the flood. The result of the investigation by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry reported the complexity of dam management under uncertainty considering its conflicting purposes (Heazle et ah, 2013). For example, coming from the tail end of the Millennium Drought there was ambivalence among dam operators to release water until this need became urgent considering the magnitude of the floods.

Key Responses

Water governance in Australia tends to suppress guidance and resources for local and state authorities to deal with flood management (Godden & Rung, 2011). Hence, flood management initiatives predominantly favor the protection of infrastructure and private property from floods as opposed to more holistic measures. From an urban planning perspective, temporary local planning provisions were implemented after the floods (e.g., Brisbane) to clarify requirements for flood levels and standards, and facilitate repair and reconstruction of affected properties (Bird et ah, 2013). A blame game was also initiated against the dam operators to shift responsibilities for the significant flood damage caused by the release of water from the dam at the peak of the flood event (Ewart & McLean, 2015). However, it was precisely the primary flood protection function of the dam that facilitated ongoing development along the Brisbane River floodplains. This pointed to the need for regulatory reforms to avoid future similar incidents as opposed to more comprehensive changes for improving the region’s resilience to floods (McGowan, 2012).

Additionally, new flood management procedures were introduced (e.g., Brisbane’s Flood Future Smart Strategy) aiming at improving the city’s capacity to deal with future events and risks. However, despite known flood risks, developments continued to be approved along the floodplains across the region, which may flood during future extreme rainfall events (Queensland Government, 2019). Moreover, recently flood-resilient building guidelines have been released but these lack statutory powers (Queensland Government, 2019) and shift responsibility to individual homeowners. The Brisbane River Strategic Floodplain Management Plan (Queensland Government, 2019) takes into consideration future climate change impacts on changed flood risk profiles, but no provision is in place to deal with the legacy of urban development along the river’s floodplain. Instead, the focus is on improving communities’ resilience to disaster and awareness of flood risks.

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