The important decisions made by water utilities need to include considerations of an uncertain future. This may mean that they will need to adapt their thinking.

The article outlines a survey of water utilities that is part of a current Water Research Australia project. The project is  titled, Better data-driven decision making under future climate uncertainty.

Adapting to a changing climate

Australian water utilities have dealt with extreme events and changes in their operating environments for a long time. Their resilience is tested by disruptions like water scarcity, floods, power outages and pipe failures. While these disruptions may or may not be linked to climate change, they are an indication of their ability to cope with future challenges.
 
Adapting to Australia’s variable climate and extreme weather events has already cost the urban water industry millions. In some cases, the responses to these events by governments and water utilities have been heavily criticised.
 
This is why water industry decision makers need to have appropriate techniques that they can use with suitable climate data. It will help them to make robust business, planning and operational decisions for an uncertain future.

How is the future changing thinking?

We know water utilities appreciate they are exposed to climate-related risks. Such risks include:
  • water security (e.g. higher demand and reduced rainfall)
  • infrastructure (e.g. elevated sea level and associated increase in flooding)
  • safety (e.g. exposure of personnel to extreme heat and fire danger)
  • inter-dependencies (e.g. power or communications failure leading to service disruption).
What we don’t know is how water utilities are making decisions to address these risks. That is what the research project wants to discover.
 
The project is led by SA Water and the University of Adelaide. It’s funded by the Australian water industry through contributions to Water Research Australia.

Survey of water utilities: How are important decisions being made?

The first stage of the research involves experts in a range of areas. Those areas include decision-making, climate change science, climate change impacts and climate change adaptation.
Participants are drawn from 17 industry, university and consulting partners. The group of experts includes personnel from 11 Australian water utilities.
 
The survey is currently underway.
 
By surveying water utility executives, management and staff, we want to find out how important decisions are being made.

How will the survey help utilities adapt?

The survey will provide insight into:
  • Climate data and information that is used to inform decision-making
  • How climate data are analysed, and how resulting information this used
  • Rules of thumb and decision processes applied in decision-making
  • Formal option evaluation methods to adapt solutions
  • Climate change exposure to externalities, such as customers, the urban environment, and businesses.

Who is the survey for?

The survey targets decision-makers in key areas exposed to climate-related risk. Those areas include:
  • Strategy and planning
  • Asset management
  • Operations
  • Communications
  • Finance.
Survey results will benchmark current and best practices for climate-related decision-making in water utilities. The results will inform an online framework that will connect decision-makers to appropriate tools and resources.

What’s in the survey?

The survey encourages decision-makers to list 5-10 key decisions they make in their roles. Questions then help us analyse the features for each decision. Such questions may include:
  • What climate data supports the decision?
  • What planning horizons are used?
  • Are future scenarios or extreme events considered?
  • Are inter-dependencies with other utilities considered (e.g. power, transport)?

Preliminary results

Early results from the survey show that organisations may understand and appreciate areas exposed to risk. That understanding is at a higher level. The strategies used decision-makers in asset management and operations must also give them the right tools.
 
Several participants have taken the survey in groups. This has led to great discussion about the ways we can embed climate adaptation strategy. Group surveys has helped us identify water utilities ‘ inter-dependencies. It has also helped us identify climate risks in asset management and operations.

Would you like to take part?

If you would like to take the survey, please contact Michael Di Matteo at the University of Adelaide. Email michael.dimatteo [at] adelaide.edu.au.