Patrick Troy looks into water's future

Patrick Troy looks into water's future

Review article

By Christopher Sheil

Patrick Troy looks deeply into the future of our water in the summer 2001-2002 issue of Dissent. He finds that the 'big engineering' approach to demand, which has come down to us with few embellishments from the 19th century, is now in serious trouble on all fronts.

Australia's urban water management is becoming ever more tightly trapped within a vicious circle. By withdrawing progressively larger volumes of water from the surfaces of the natural environment around our growing cities, authorities are progressively stressing the associated ecology. Meanwhile, urban rain goes begging - and worse: the flows that run off from the rain that falls on the cities are the "single most important" source of the pollution in our urban harbours, bays and rivers. And, again, meanwhile, most cities have also been long discharging lightly treated sewage into their oceans, the upshot of which is "increasing point sources of pollution in the near off-shore".

Not only does all this mean that our city utility managers are now facing a future where they will have progressively less room to move, the sorry picture is compounded by the fact that much of the nation's capital-intensive water infrastructure is nearing the end of its life.

Not unexpectedly, Troy finds that the ideology that currently pervades the management of our public infrastructure contains no satisfactory solutions to the looming crisis. Economic rationalism is a broad sword. It can suppress consumption, but is blind to time and space, and the management of our water is exactly a time and space problem. Economic rationalism is next to useless when it comes to the particular task of examining, anticipating and managing the future demand for water in the specific context of our cities; a task that may be - as it almost always has been with water infrastructure - sadly delayed, but which cannot be denied.

Suppressing consumption by increasing prices is, moreover, inequitable, allowing wealthy citizens to simply buy their way out of their responsibility for contributing to the resolution of the environmental problems their behaviour helps to create; a resolution upon which their good health also commonly depends.

Eschewing reliance upon what he calls "economic mechanisms", instead Troy pursues a decentralised vision of practical environmental solutions. The key is harvesting city rain. This rain is generally sufficient to meet Australia's annual current demand for urban water. The vicious circle that is enclosing the cities could be broken by capturing the rain in modern household tanks, which could be fitted with filtration devices that can now produce water of a higher quality than the existing reticulation systems.

Indeed, the widespread intervention of household tanks has the potential to create a virtuous management circle. The domestic harvesting of rainwater for household consumption would reduce demand from the present large-scale urban storages. It would also reduce sewerage flows by allowing for the installation of small-scale biological treatment plants, the development of which has now made it feasible to operate household or neighbourhood water supply and recycling systems. Importantly, harvesting the rainwater would also reduce the heavy po