Do not judge me by my ability to climb a tree

| May 12, 2014

There is more to urban water management than merely maximising water security. Julien Lepetit explains that this conventional approach has dramatic consequences for our ecosystem.

Over the last six months I have participated in remarkably similar conversations across Australia in which the starting position from well-intended policy makers, government officials and industry groups was consistently wrong: Australia is running out of water, the biggest problem with urban water management is water security, Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) needs to help.

I appreciate that the drought experienced by most Australians for nearly a decade has shaped our communities thinking and influenced our perception of water, but it is important for people to understand that there is much more to the question of urban water management than that of water security.

The last 15 years of combined research by the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Freshwater Ecology, the CRC for Catchment Hydrology, the CRC for e-Water and the current CRC for Water Sensitive Cities have clearly demonstrated the shortcomings of the conventional approach to water management in our cities: maximising the water security (primarily for large storage in dams), efficiently draining both sewage and stormwater away from living areas. The unintended (or previously acceptable?) consequences include degraded urban waterways, loss of habitats and ecosystems, widespread erosion and loss of soils, decreased infiltration in urban areas, reduced recharge of soil moisture and baseflow to creeks and rivers, and increased loading of pollutants.

These recent conversations genuinely aimed at achieving a better, more sustainable outcome for urban planning, urban design and water cycle management. With water security and drought in mind, generating large amounts of stormwater seemed like a great idea to some; helping the drying, thirsty and water stressed environment all around us. Several others were questioning the merits of recommending rainwater tanks for individual households in the ACT, given we have recently completed a major upgrade of our main water supply dam at a very high cost. In another instance, the consideration of stormwater harvesting was being criticised for the same reason.

In all cases, the fundamental flaws in the debate came from how the conversation was framed:

  • If all you expect from stormwater harvesting or rainwater tanks is water security, then these are most likely not the best solution
  • If all you consider in terms of environmental impact from water management is the volume of water delivered to the environment, then you are considering a much reduced extent of the true problem.

This reminds me of words from Einstein that I like: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

People need to understand the multi-faceted aspects of water management to make the right decision for their community. It is my role and that of WSUD specialists to guide and help them understand the trade-off and long term consequences of their decisions and explore alternatives.

On a current project in the ACT (West Belconnen – a 21st century garden suburb), my team demonstrated that the key challenge in water management for a low environmental impact from land development is identifying acceptable and cost effective pathways to disposing of large volume of stormwater, including rainwater tanks, stormwater harvesting, irrigation of public open space and urban food production.

Australia is a lucky country with many waterways and water bodies in much better conditions than those around where I grew up (Lille, France). In 2012, the European Commission DG Environment reported that across most of Western Europe more than 70% of waterways and water bodies are degraded. Adequately considering and adopting WSUD principles can help Australia preventing a similar dramatic outcome.



  1. Synt4x 3rror

    July 9, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for sharing

    This article is amazing, thank you so much for sharing your ideas on us. Keep up the good work and keep blogging.