Australian water practitioners visit Oxford to learn from innovations in the UK water industry

Gareth Walker, University of Oxford

On Thursday 10 May, a delegation of 18 Australian water management specialists from industry, local government, and engineering consultancies visited Oxford University as part of a Water Sensitive Studies Tour. Speakers from Oxford University and the UK research and technology sector briefed the delegation on trends in policy, research and technology in the UK water industry.

Dr Dustin Garrick presented Oxford University’s Water Security Network which was launched to establish Oxford as a global centre of water science excellence and innovation. The network’s research themes reflect Oxford’s areas of strength and capacity, with relevance to multiple aspects of urban water management. The network fosters links with external partners across the world. “We are actively building partnerships with Australian researchers, policymakers and practitioners in the areas of climate risk and resilience to promote water security,” said Garrick.

Ian Bernard (British Water) and Gareth Walker (DPhil candidate, Oxford University) highlighted the water scarcity challenges faced by the UK Water Industry, along with current policy and regulatory responses.

The drive for innovation and new technology uptake in the UK water sector was discussed by Steven Lambert (Technology Strategy Board), Derek Pedley and Kerry Thomas (both from Oxford’s Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network). Current government initiatives are targeted to overcome the institutional and economic barriers to innovation, while the ESKTN supports coordinated research and knowledge sharing across diverse public and private sector actors.

Discussions included the potential transferability of lessons learnt between the Australia and UK, with a particular focus on utility responses to water scarcity, the impact of regulatory frameworks, and behavioural change in relation to demand management.

The delegates shared several insights about long-term planning under non-stationary conditions. The UK’s experience of a collapse in demand during the economic recession in the 1970s was contrasted with the recent and sudden abatement of drought conditions in regions of Australia. A theme emerged; in the case of investments in projects such as reservoirs and desalination plants, planning horizons can span several decades, yet our ability to forecast climatic conditions and demand trajectories at this time scale are highly uncertain.

How can the political and economic risk of over or under investment be mitigated given these uncertainties?  Innovations in technologies and institutional design were acknowledged to provide potentially more adaptive modes of management. However, the barriers of political will and cultural change remain significant and poorly understood.