The well is going dry: how water literacy can save us from a water crisis

Kate Lanskey Kate Lanskey
Head of Engineering and Professional Services, Urban Utilities
8 November 2022
7 min read

Popularly known as The Waterman of India – Rajendra Singh – was initially an unlikely candidate for the job. A doctor working in Jaipur in the 1980s, he constantly saw patients affected by a high rate of night blindness caused by malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. A local told Rajendra these people don't need your medicines, they don't need your education. They just need water. 

Rajendra didn't know anything about water conservation but that quickly changed. He is now renowned and recognised internationally for his efforts to promote water management that significantly improved people's health and hygiene across India. His latest crusade – he is now calling for an increase in water literacy to solve India's water shortage crisis – is one that could benefit us all. 

With the impact of climate change continuing to disrupt our world, we're increasingly faced with more frequent and severe droughts and floods. Cities become denser and without sufficient 'watered' green space and waterways, they become hotter.

As our water infrastructure assets age, combined with the effects of climate change, we're faced with increasing disruptions to water services and quality of water. For example, in New Zealand, one in five people did not have access to drinking water that complied with health standards in 2020. Increasingly, access to water and the quality of water will, or has already, become a big-ticket item in relation to where and how we want to live. 

Just as children at school learn about interest rates and economics to improve future generations' financial literacy, if we want our kids to navigate a world impacted by climate change, and make the right decisions on investment and management of 'liquid gold', they will need water literacy. 

But everyone knows water is essential for life, right? You can exist without food for 10 days, but only for three without water. So, what have we been missing about water all this time?

How water works: the need to know

Do we want to continue to enjoy affordable water services in our homes? Do we want to live in clean, green cities? Do we want to swim at healthy rivers and beaches? Of course, the answer is yes. However, in order for decisions around how water resources are used and managed to be made and prioritised, we need to be able to actively participate in the conversation.

It's imperative to build a better understanding of the value of water, so that people are aware of the important decisions that need to be made to create a more liveable future, and can contribute to a community-based discussion on how the water cycle can influence our day-to-day lives, from affordability through to local nature-based solutions.

Water, wastewater, stormwater and both physical infrastructure and natural capital (our waterways and catchments) are undervalued because they are largely out of sight. Many of us don't think about the pathogens, nutrients, odours, and tastes that have been removed from the water we use in our homes.

When we drive to work, preoccupied with the traffic we sit among, we don't think about the extensive network of pipes and pumps working in the background. It's the opposite of transport where new buses, bridges, roads, and rail are highly visible and commonly discussed wherever you go. We 'cut ribbons' and admire the latest landmark building, hospital, school or stadium, but how often do we value and celebrate our water catchments and precious natural infrastructure – they don't appear on the balance sheet although they definitely impact our lives. Similarly, when we flush the toilet or empty the sink, we don't think about where the water goes. The treatment and distribution of water to and from our homes and businesses has often been so effective that fortunately, for many of us, we haven't had to worry about it. While regional and remote communities are sometimes more aware of water quality and availability, metropolitan water consumers have long since simply turned on a tap.

With the emerging climate crises, there are more sustainable ways of using water. For example, our wastewater has always been reused and recycled back to us through nature or more directly when we treat water from our rivers downstream of communities that have discharged their waste. Now, technology is available and already being used to purify and reuse water more efficiently and effectively.

One of the central reasons why these methods are not more widely and readily deployed is our politicians and decision makers fear that the media will play up the 'yuck' factor and communities will react emotionally as they don't have the understanding around where water comes from (before the tap) and where it goes afterwards. 

Yet attitudes to purified recycled water for potable use are changing. Singapore is increasing its transformation of sewage into clean usable water from 10% to meet 40% of the demand; Perth has used purified recycled water since 2017; when you go to Disneyland in Los Angeles, you consume recycled water; and there are now craft beers available made from purified recycled water. 

Recent surveys in regional New South Wales and in Southeast Queensland have shown a majority of people are open to the idea of using recycled water. Increased water literacy will move the dial and give our decision makers the confidence to engage directly in this important conversation to create a more circular water economy and sustainable future.

Rethinking value

When water literacy increases in communities, they become equipped to make choices about what matters most to them and where value lies. Enabling communities to understand the full water cycle empowers them to influence the services they pay for, and where investment should be directed. 

Green-blue public spaces, like parks, rivers, beaches and gardens, are hugely important to liveability. However, keeping these spaces clean and green, and safe to swim and play in, comes with a price tag. There's interest now in making the Parramatta River in Western Sydney swimmable again. Even so, would the average person understand that keeping the local waterway clean for swimming could cost more than a new rail network? 

Most people who work in the water industry – people who thoroughly understand the water cycle – are not surprised at how much these amenities cost, or how much investment is required to continue to provide resilient water and wastewater services. But there is no National Water Infrastructure Pipeline; the majority of water infrastructure projects are not included in Infrastructure Australia's pipeline because they don't form part of their remit. 

Without transparency on what we currently need to spend as a nation on water infrastructure or water amenity, and without a pipeline of projects that include 'natural capital' projects such as making Parramatta River safe for swimming, how can communities be expected to know what investment is required, and what they should be asking their politicians and decision makers? 

Looking ahead, the sooner people come to appreciate the value of water in our daily lives, the sooner we can take the right pathways to ensuring we have enough water for healthy, happy living spaces – for everyone – and the infrastructure needed to make that possible. 

Cleaner, greener liveable cities

The cost-benefit analysis done for creating water amenity in Western Sydney's growth areas including infrastructure like the Upper South Creek hi-tech water recycling plant, found the social and economic benefits would reach $10 billion – based on the health and liveability value infrastructure works would create for the community. 

Generally, people understand that purchasing a property located closer to transport – for example, light rail – is likely to return a strong investment; although how many people are aware of the value to property prices of a water amenity that can reduce urban heating and create a liveable environment?

There are conversations around creating circular economies, reconsidering waste as resource, and the infrastructure needed to make it a reality. While there has been a great deal of progress over the past 10 to 20 years around people's understanding of a liveable city, there is still a lower level of literacy around how the water cycle connects to this, and what sort of infrastructure choices are available. 

If people had a greater appreciation of how vital water is to the liveability of their communities, and how important water infrastructure is to what they value, they'll be well-appointed to start asking their local governments and utilities: "What are you doing to improve my local water amenity, or the liveability of my community?" 

In addition to financial literacy education at schools, there is a greater understanding among people of the importance of sustainability in relation to energy sources. Nevertheless, as we move forward and everyone becomes more involved and excited talking about clean, green futures, we need to be talking about clean, green water, too.

If we don’t, we are going to miss the opportunity to create the green-blue communities of the future that we all know we want to live in.


Kevin Werksman
Written by
Kevin Werksman

Kate Lanskey
Written by
Kate Lanskey

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