By Caroline Crosby, Technical Director Three Waters
Like many parts of New Zealand, in 2020 Auckland has had a taste of what it means to be water vulnerable. A drought situation disrupted lives and business activities, reduced economic output and put livestock and horticulture at risk. Throughout the upper North Island, people living in rural areas faced serious, potentially health-threatening water shortages as supply was for a time unable to meet demand. While recent rainfall reduced the threat of a serious drought in Auckland, the same weather system caused devastating flooding in Napier, with authorities restricting access to overwhelmed public wastewater networks to try and lessen the risk of contamination of floodwaters by sewage. Climate change is predicted to cause greater weather variability, increasing the intensity and frequency of both drought and flooding events. Scenarios like this, predicted to become more common, illustrate in real time the impacts of a changing climate on water infrastructure and supply.
Building a resilient and water-secure future will be a challenging task. Auckland last experienced serious drought in 1993 when the introduction of water restrictions and concern over future supply spurred on the implementation of a single technocratic solution. This was extraction from the most economically viable source - the Waikato River - and the first treatment facility and pipeline between the river and Auckland’s metropolitan network was constructed to augment Auckland’s existing water sources. Fast forward to 2020 and construction of another pipeline can only be part of the solution. Competing users and water allocations, in-catchment demand, low river flows in drought periods and due regard being given to te mana o te wai, mean that providing a future-proofed supply of water to Auckland is going to be a more complicated exercise in the future.
There is increasing recognition among water managers and professionals that water security is something that communities need to create together. Communities are not passive recipients and consumers of waters infrastructure; they can contribute to the resilience of water systems in many ways at household or neighbourhood level or as instigators for change and improvement. In Auckland, multiple parties are working effectively together to respond to the drought. At utility scale, multiple water sources are being commissioned and connected to urban networks. At a household and neighbourhood scale, there is an increasing focus on rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse and water saving technologies. Auckland Council has reduced the costs for households investing in rain tanks to encourage their installation and uptake has been very positive.
The above drought response is an indicator of how collaborative planning will need to underpin future efforts to provide water security. Collaborative planning between all users and developers of waters infrastructure, from rain tanks to large scale treatment facilities, will enable:
- An overarching, holistic view of water systems and infrastructure to be considered to inform the design and management of water systems
- Education and empowerment of communities to become water resilient and self-sufficient to the extent possible
- Maximum use of diversity in water supply
- The development of incentives that encourage utilities, developers and households to view to their own activities as adding to the wider community water security
The first National Climate Change Risk Assessment for New Zealand (Arotakenga T?raru m? te Huringa ?huarangi o ?otearoa, August 2020) identifies the risks of availability and quantity of potable water supplies as the highest risk facing New Zealand from climate change. The assessment is clear that action to adapt and secure our water supplies is required now.
Defining actions that will result in a water secure future is important. This is not the sole responsibility of any single organisation or government.
All of us, utilities, councils, iwi, developers, business owners and private citizens have a role to play in defining and developing a water secure future. Only by working together can we design and build water systems for the future. It is in all of our best interests that we do so.
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