Australia must urgently protect our homes from rising sea levels and develop a national water strategy to stop our taps running dry, Infrastructure Australia has said.
A summer of extreme weather events has tested the resilience of our regional communities and raised question marks about our capacity to deal with climate change.
So much so that improving water security and developing national strategies for water and coastal inundation are now listed as “high-priority initiatives” in Infrastructure Australia’s new list of critical projects.
Released on Wednesday, the independent infrastructure adviser’s list contains 147 infrastructure proposals of national significance and eight “high-priority” initiatives designed to boost productivity and improve our quality of life. The pipeline of suggested projects now totals $58 billion.
It comes after Infrastructure Australia said in August that high levels of infrastructure spending must become the ‘new normal’ if the country is to maintain its high standards of living.
Five of the eight “high-priority” initiatives are national projects covering water, waste removal, coastal inundation and road maintenance.
A combination of climate change, population growth and ageing infrastructure is putting pressure on urban and regional water systems, the report said.
And rising sea levels might require governments to build seawalls and evacuate certain parts of our coastline. The report said floods of up to one metre can cost the average household between $60,000 and $80,000 in damages.
The pressure on our water systems means consumers face the prospect of higher water bills and severe water shortages “in many parts of the country”.
The report said regional towns are particularly vulnerable as they often rely on a single supply source, “with no physical link to an alternative bulk water supply”.
It said the situation demands “a mix of infrastructure and non-infrastructure responses” – such as recycling and desalination – together with an overarching national water strategy to help us “efficiently and sustainably capture, use and manage water”.
Infrastructure Australia said a water national strategy should, among other things, take into account:
- The current availability, quality, regulation and use of water within various catchments
- Shifts in run-off levels linked to changing land uses and climate change
- Changes in demand linked to population, environment and industry requirements.
“In response to this call to action, we’re expecting a range of solutions to be considered for capturing, managing and distributing water, along with improvements in reporting and use of data in the water sector,” Infrastructure Australia CEO Romilly Madew said.
That Infrastructure Australia highlighted the need for a national water strategy came as no surprise to Dr Anas Ghadouani, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Western Australia.
Dr Ghadouani told The New Daily that “we are all at risk” of running out of water due to a lack of planning from the federal government.
Perth had recently dodged a major water crisis by building two desalination plants and injecting waste water into the ground “so that we could extract it later,” he said.
But each location will demand its own solutions.
“The future should be a mixture of decentralised and centralised solutions – so that if you are in Western Sydney, you don’t rely on eastern Sydney for water,” Dr Ghadouani said.
There are all sorts of schemes – there is no limit to [the number of] solutions out there. But we need integrated planning for the future.’’
The report also called for improved road safety and mobile telecommunications coverage in remote areas, after this season’s bushfires temporarily stripped regional towns of light and power.
“Staying connected requires not only safe and efficient transport options, but also ensuring our towns and regional communities have the same access to telecommunications as the rest of Australia,” Ms Madew said.
“This is to also provide people with reliable access to electronic payment systems, emergency alerts, technology innovations and other critical services.”
Another “high-priority initiative” was road maintenance.
The report found costs are rising and the overall maintenance backlog increasing.
A previous Infrastructure Australia report found New South Wales alone has a local road maintenance backlog of $2.2 billion, and universities have a general maintenance backlog of almost $1.9 billion.
Economists have said that fixing potholes and other maintenance issues would be a good way of stimulating the sluggish economy as they are simple and quick to roll out.