Distributed Water Systems: A networked and localised approach for sustainable water services

This is VEIL’s second briefing paper on distributed systems. It draws on case studies and research to describe the emergence of ‘distributed water systems’ – a highly networked and localised approach to water infrastructure and critical water services.

Authors: Che Biggs, Chris Ryan, John Wiseman, Kirsten Larsen
Participating Institutions: Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Melbourne with the McCaughey Centre: Vic Health Centre for the Promotion of Mental Health and Community Wellbeing, University of Melbourne

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:

An unprecedented water crisis is unfolding across southern Australia, driven by the compounding impacts of climate change, over use and a legacy of short sighted water policies. As many water strategists re-apply traditional methods to meet this ‘perfect storm’ of supply and demand challenges, a quiet evolution is occurring in water system design. This evolution has emerged as a strong and coherent trend with positive and radical implications for creating a sustainable water future.

This briefing paper draws on case studies and research to describe the emergence of ‘distributed water systems’ – a highly networked and localised approach to water infrastructure and critical water services. Cases from Australia, Europe and the US show how distributed water systems can generate positive outcomes that enhance and supplement those provided by our existing infrastructure models. They are able to:
•    Reduce costs and resource use
•    Improve service security and reduce risk of failure
•    Strengthen local economies
•    Strengthen community wellbeing
•    Regenerate and protect the natural environment
•    Redefine traditional water systems

Distributed systems represent an innovative approach for responding to risk and uncertainty. They can build adaptive capacity by increasing the diversity and flexibility of water systems without locking utilities, customers and future governments into rigid pathways for delivering critical services. By creating distributed water systems through infrastructure design choices at the household-to-regional level, Victoria can reduce social, economic and environmental vulnerability to climate change and energy supply shocks.

In the distributed systems model, infrastructure and critical services (for water, food and energy) are positioned close to points of demand and resource availability and linked within networks of exchange. Services traditionally provided by a single, linear system are instead delivered via a diverse set of smaller systems – tailored to location but able to transfer resources across wider areas.

Much more can and should be done to understand and foster the evolution of distributed water systems. Support for innovative projects and a reassessment of existing models of governance is required to enable further adaptation in the water sector. A re-evaluation of the impacts that large water projects have on emerging water sector innovation is also required. The inability of existing tools to assess and compare the long-term or non-financial benefits derived from distributed systems highlights the need for research and practical experimentation to build experience and capacity in this area.

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