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From public health to disaster response: The case for a new approach to water management

April 30, 2024

Water sustains communities, economies, and ecosystems. New technology like the Esri Utility Network Data Model could transform how we manage it.

By Liz Abbey, Dave Annan, and Louisa Bloomer

Water sustains our communities, economies, and ecosystems. Yet we often overlook its importance until a crisis strikes. From the public health risks of contaminated drinking water to the challenges posed by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, the need for a new approach to water management in New Zealand and Australia has never been more urgent. We must consider the role that new technology, such as the Esri Utility Network Data Model, could play in helping us find a solution.

Water, water everywhere—and not a drop to drink

Clean drinking water is something that most of us in New Zealand and Australia take for granted. We never question the quality of the water that spurts from our taps, never wonder if, perhaps, we should boil it first. And, for the lucky majority, there’s no need for concern—but that’s far from the case for everyone.

There are currently 82 ‘boil-water notices’ in effect in New Zealand, according to 1News. The water is deemed unsafe to drink due to the heightened risk of contamination by bacteria, such as e.coli. About a third of those boil water notices have been in effect for more than a year. And two towns have been on boil notices for almost 30 years.

‘A boil water notice ought to be a temporary measure because you need to find a longer-term solution,’ said Water NZ chief executive Gillian Blythe.

Utility network solutions locate water assets and understand critical data about them quickly and easily.

With tens of thousands of water suppliers in the country, several serving towns with populations in the hundreds, many simply don’t have the resources to invest in modernising their water infrastructure. ‘Smaller providers can often struggle to get the finance together to fix whatever the issue is,’ Blythe continued. ‘They also might not have the skills to be able to do it, they might not have the knowledge.’

A recent study by the Universities of Otago, Loughborough, Auckland, and Victoria found that 800,000 people in New Zealand are exposed to nitrate levels in water above those deemed to pose a health risk. The danger? Potentially 100 cases and around 40 deaths from bowel cancer a year.

Despite the clear health risks, water standards continue to decline. In 2020-21, a report by the New Zealand government found a 1 percent drop in safe drinking water nationwide.

Across the Tasman, Australians are going without clean drinking water, too. This is especially true in many remote and Indigenous communities. Research by the Australian National University found 627,736 people across 408 regional and remote locations were using water that did not meet the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines.

It’s clear we need to do something to improve both countries’ water infrastructure. And soon.

Improving water infrastructure for a changing climate

Water is the cause of most natural disasters, according to the UN. These range from devastating floods to dangerous landslides; they wreak havoc on homes and communities and pose a serious threat to not only livelihoods but to lives. These natural disasters are often worsened by our built environment and ageing water infrastructure.

The UN note that ‘rapid urbanisation can concrete over large areas of land, channelling run-off too rapidly 

We need to combat the risks posed to our communities by unsafe drinking water and the escalating risks of climate change. And that means we must consider a new approach to water management.

And, with the world in the grips of climate change, the frequency of these disasters is only increasing.

Globally, the number of flood-related disasters has increased by 134 percent since 2000, according to the World Meteorological Organization. And it’s only going to get worse; but there is hope on the horizon.

The UN says that the ‘increasing economic cost and toll of disasters’ are driving governments and humanitarian organisations to have a different focus. They’re putting a priority on preparedness, prevention, and addressing the root causes of vulnerability. We face a climatically uncertain future. The UN says that ‘improving the resilience of water and sanitation services and protecting ecosystems will be key to surviving’.

A new approach to New Zealand water management

We need to combat the risks posed to our communities by unsafe drinking water and the escalating risks of climate change. And that means we must consider a new approach to water management. In New Zealand, the implementation of new water management technology provides one path forward.

Many countries face major challenges when it comes to water management. Cities, towns, and rural communities in developed and developing nations alike lack full visibility and understanding of their water assets. They rely on outdated, incomplete, and inconsistent data and local knowledge to get by. In some cases, they have to rely on guesswork—or drilling holes in the ground—to understand where their water assets are and the condition they’re in, how they connect and interact with one another, and how they affect the communities and environments they serve. This has knock-on effects for everything from water quality to the maintenance of ageing water infrastructure to disaster management.

Using the Esri Utility Network Data Model, underground and aboveground water assets are modelled in real time and space. 

A new technology, Esri Utility Network, can change this.

The Esri Utility Network Data Model is a digital platform designed to model all the components that make up water systems in real time and space. This includes both underground and aboveground water assets. We’re talking about pipes, valves, tanks, pump stations and reservoirs, as well as geographic elements like roads, buildings, and natural features.

Utility network solutions allow those responsible for water management, including drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater, to locate water assets and understand critical data about them quickly and easily. This can include the age, measurements, and condition of a stormwater pipe; when it’s due to be serviced; and where the water flowing through it is coming from and where it’s going.

The potential benefits of the Esri Utility Network Data Model for water management are large. For example, improved tracing ability means that if there is a bacterial outbreak, you can instantly identify where your water is being compromised and alert the public. It will likely reduce the number of people who fall ill.

In a natural disaster, we can rapidly deploy water-management experts to the field to fix issues that have arisen. They’re able to access high-quality data on the go, locate the scene of the issue, run a real-time connection and an isolation trace, and identify what valves need to be turned off and who is going to be impacted. Even something as simple as standardising terminology using the Esri Utility Network Data Model can improve disaster response. It removes the added step of explaining what an asset is; and it allows communities to help one another more easily in times of need.

The Esri Utility Network Data Model as a blueprint for the future

The issues we face—from the public health risks posed by inadequate water quality to the devastation wrought by natural disasters—are daunting. But they’re not insurmountable. However, it’s clear that we need innovative solutions if we’re to work towards a future where our communities are not only healthier but more resilient. Technology like the Esri Utility Network Data Model is not a panacea; but it does offer a new path forward—and makes a strong case for a new approach to water management in New Zealand and Australia.

About the authors

Liz has a diverse background as a geologist & geospatial specialist in geotechnical, environmental, and civil engineering. She found her passion in geospatial analysis while researching the effects of ancient sea level rise on the Great Barrier Reef.

As a senior spacial consultant, Dave has over 20 years of experience in developing and managing ICT programmes for major infrastructure and planning programmes of works.

As Digital Practice Leader across Asia Pacific Louisa helps our clients make smart decisions about where to invest, and how to maintain and get the most from their assets.

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