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Water sensitive Australian cities

Imagine ..... a cool, green city with raingardens, urban forests, and roof-top vegetable gardens ..... people, governments and industries working together for sustainable cities ..... healthy urban waterways fit for enjoyment and fishing, where native wildlife flourishes ..... city and country coexisting in harmony, leaving only tiny footprints on the planet ..... You have just imagined a Water Sensitive City.

Current approaches to urban water management are resulting in unacceptable outcomes, such as degraded catchments and waterways, vulnerability to water scarcity and flooding, high energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and lack of community engagement. We can no longer keep trying to use ‘wrong’ approaches in ‘right’ ways. There is now widespread agreement that a major change is required in the way water is managed in and around cities.

DOW Chemical (Australia) Limited recognised an opportunity to be part of this important change, and joined with the International WaterCentre (IWC), which is dedicated to developing leadership capacity in sustainable and integrated water practices in Australia and internationally. DOW and the IWC wanted to identify and address the institutional and social barriers currently preventing this change to sustainable water management practices.

The IWC, with the expertise of the National Urban Water Governance Program (NUWGP), Monash University, suggested that debate between water practitioners was an important starting point for the creation of a common vision for sustainable cities. The combination of the physical water cycle or system and non-physical elements such as people working to affect outcomes, is extremely complex, but this kind of systems-thinking approach is considered fundamental to creating a sustainable water future. This can only be achieved through the engagement of research, practitioner and political communities as well as the general public.

In February 2009 the International WaterCentre hosted a series of workshops titled ‘Creating Water Sensitive Cities in Australia’ for water-related professionals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Associate Professor Rebekah Brown led an internationally recognised team of experts from IWC member, Monash University’s NUWGP to present findings from a three-year research project investigating the institutional barriers to sustainable urban water management and governance factors required to transition to Water Sensitive Cities in Australia. This research formed the basis of the workshop debate. The concept of ‘Water Sensitive Cities’ came into use in 2004 when it was adopted by the Australian Government under the National Water Initiative.

The workshop facilitators used a technique called ‘conversation mapping’, where small groups working together write (or map) on paper their comments to an initial idea until the theme is fully discussed and recorded. Emerging insights (or opportunities) of the conversations are noted and examined until a conceptual model of a system of change is developed. This workshop design was largely responsible for turning the research information and participant debate into clear, applicable messages.

The key messages from the 500 participants of these workshops were that achieving Water Sensitive Cities in Australia requires:

  • a shared vision and national framework that recognises Australia’s diverse landscapes and water management arrangements to guide cities through the most effective and efficient pathway to water sustainability;
  • leadership from the Australian government to ensure issues of governance, regulation and financial investment are consistent with achieving the Water Sensitive City vision;
  • a complete cultural change which actively engages a much wider array of professions and experiences, including the community, to address future challenges;
  • changes in institutional arrangements at all levels of government to support a common approach to social, economic and environmental decision making and prioritisation of actions.


In May 2009 these messages were taken to Canberra as a basis for discussion with 70 senior water and urban policy professionals about what a Water Sensitive City means and how it might be created. Participants in this meeting supported the National Water Commission who expressed that:

  • Urgent action is needed for all of Australia’s major urban centres to become Water Sensitive Cities.
  • Rather than radical restructuring of the current business structures, the action requires substantial cultural change, an agreed vision, increased understanding among the urban communities and their politicians, and incentives for all stakeholders to create Water Sensitive Cities.
  • As a matter of urgency, the national government and relevant decision makers from major cities should develop a national vision and framework for Water Sensitive Cities in Australia, which is adaptive to different city contexts.
  • A “community of practice” network be developed at a national and city level, enabling interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral coordination and learning.
  • Ongoing investment in research is needed to support the learning cycle – using both social sciences and physical sciences.


National Water Commissioner Mr Chris Davis concluded the meeting by saying that:

  • Facilitating Water Sensitive Cities across Australia’s major urban centres was a recognised priority in the National Water Initiative of 2004, and is an ongoing priority for the National Water Commission.
  • The collation of the views of 500 passionate stakeholders and practitioners provides good guidance for practical actions that can advance water sensitive cities.
  • Momentum was clearly building right across the Australian water industry for more to be done in the area of water sensitive cities.

Debate about Water Sensitive Cities has now begun around Australia. “The response from participants was overwhelming,” said IWC CEO Mark Pascoe. “The energy and excitement we saw over the possibilities of this idea can certainly lead to the creation of a common vision for sustainable cities, and allow us to see the achievement of this vision in Australia’s future. We look forward to seeing the results of these workshops translate into actions, and we are confident that the efforts of the participants will lead to significant changes in how Australian cities manage water in the future.”


For further information on the Creating Water Sensitive Cities workshops, download the Transitioning to Water Sensitive Cities in Australia: Synthesis Report at, or email


For information on the National Urban Water Governance Program at Monash University, go to


For information on the National Water Commission, go to








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