Doing water differently: how NSW is setting a standard for the world to follow

Perhaps the UK has something to learn from NSW in their approach to water resources management
Doing water differently: how NSW is setting a standard for the world to follow
UKCRIC Director, Research Impact (Cranfield University)

The recent news that the state of New South Wales in Australia has appointed Jim Bentley to be CEO-Water in the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is hugely significant. The move hard-wires a rounded appreciation of water resources management into the predominant regional governance body, sending an important message about the need to better integrate decision making as it relates to both the natural and engineered water systems.

The role itself will provide a point of focus for negotiations across jurisdictions and regions to make sure that New South Wales has sustainable and affordable access to water resources and services. Commentators and academics have long been arguing that achieving ambitions of sustainability and resilience requires more joined-up thinking and action. The mere fact that the New South Wales government has sanctioned a role with the title ‘CEO-Water’ evidences this change of perspective and, perhaps more importantly, indicates a commitment to different ways of formulating interventions. The noteworthy features of the position are its seniority, reach, and focus of accountability.

Jim is a long-time associate of UKCRIC and his new role mirrors some of the ambitions of the UKCRIC initiative, specifically those regarding improving our understanding of infrastructure interdependencies and ensuring that, in addition to securing safety, quality, and value for communities, regulatory regimes provide opportunities for flexibility and resilience. In his previous role with Hunter Water, Jim oversaw a striking 20% reduction in leakage rates and transformed the company’s relationship with its customers and stakeholders. In another parallel with UKCRIC’s agenda, the second of these achievements was influenced by a belief that the company needed to become a learning organisation with a different set of imperatives guiding its interactions with others; imperatives such as optimism, belonging, curiosity, and creativity.

The UK is, in many ways, no different from New South Wales in terms of the sustainable water challenges it faces; a growing population, aging infrastructure, climate change, tensions between environmental and human water resource needs, and so on. Whilst the nature and extent of cooperation within the UK water sector has markedly improved over the past decade or so, we should not be so complacent as to disregard the possibility that we could do more – or at least do differently. Perhaps this antipodean innovation provides a useful example of how we might achieve such a change here.

Photo credit: Peter Rosjberg via Flickr