VicWater navigates challenging waters at its annual conference

VicWater is the peak industry body for water authorities in Victoria. Its 2023 Annual Conference sought to help its members adapt to the economic challenges in the water industry.

VicWater is the peak industry body for water authorities in Victoria. Its 2023 Annual Conference sought to help its members adapt to the economic challenges in the water industry.

The current economic landscape is providing challenges for the water industry. These challenges demand the sector’s immediate attention and collaboration. Customers expect a high service level while water authorities must continue achieving business efficiencies.

The 2023 VicWater Annual Conference sought to explore the current economic state and how it impacts the water sector. The conference brought together Victorian water industry leaders and external experts. Together, they shared their experiences and provided insights on how the Victorian water industry can navigate the choppy waters of these uncertain economic times.

The Langham Hotel was the host venue for the conference. VicWater CEO Jo Lim opened the conference before introducing the Welcome to Country. This was followed by the official opening from VicWater Chair David Middleton.

Minister Harriet Shing

The opening address came from Victorian Minister for Water, The Hon Harriet Shing MLC. Shing’s attendance coincided with the appointment of 125 board members to Victoria’s 18 water corporations, nine Catchment Management Authorities, and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, bringing new skills and perspectives into the water sector, making the total number of board members 227. She highlighted the doubling of Indigenous representation across the State, with female representation increasing to 57 per cent.

“I want to acknowledge those members of boards that have made such a significant contribution to date,” Shing said. “To those who have created a path for others to tread, thank you for your contributions. Thank you for the work you have done to enable others to be part of an ever-innovating system. Thank you for making, creating, and holding space for different perspectives.”

She also pointed out the importance of learning from the recent experiences affecting the industry. Shing reiterated the importance of collaborating and innovating together as a sector, with the co-design of developments operating across networks being a key focus. By developing diverse and inclusive systems, the water industry in Victoria could continue to push back against the changing climate and extreme weather events.

“It is so important that continuous improvement is at the heart of what we do,” she said. “To that end, I want to acknowledge and thank everyone who has been so innovative and so collective in the collaborations that have occurred during floods and natural disasters. During times which have tested us in ways we have never thought before.”

Interoperability has been a growing indicator of collaboration and innovation across the Victorian water sector. Shing saw that as a reflection of supporting each other during these challenging times. She also found that the resilience of staff across the water industry had been reflected in the high-quality outcomes that had come about.

“I want to extend my thanks and respect to members of your teams, many of whom I have connected with,” Shing said. “Many of whom worked, often putting their own needs and challenges to one side to provide support, information, and comfort to accountholders, communities, customers, and stakeholders across the sector.”

Keynote speech #1 – Nicki Hutley

Nicki Hutley is a highly experienced economist. She has broad-based expertise in both macroeconomics and microeconomic policy. Hutley has gained more than three decades in financial and investment markets and economic consulting.

Her keynote speech focused on the choppy waters of economic challenges facing the world. Hutley started by referring to the challenges the World Economic Forum members believe are the most important over the next two years. The cost of living crisis was considered the biggest issue, followed by cybercrime and cyber insecurity. Having said that, the cost of living crisis is considered outside the top 10 after 10 years.

“The big question we are all asking is where is inflation going? Are we beating it, and what’s happening?” Hutley said. “The simple answer is that yes, we are beating it. If you think about the things that drove inflation in the first place, many of the supply-side issues have well and truly come down. The massive stimulus from budgets managed to avoid the world having a long recession but has resulted in this inflationary boom. That is not such an issue now.”

Hutley also talked about the role of China in influencing the global economy. She focused on the near-deflationary situation in China, which indicates a future recession. It represents about 20 per cent of the world gross domestic product (GDP) but a 30 per cent share of world economic growth.

“Every major forecaster is now talking about sub-five per cent growth for the Chinese economy,” Hutley said. “While Australia would be concerned about such rapid economic growth, every percentage point drop in the Chinese economy can have massive implications for all of us.”

Keynote speech #2 – Mick Liubinskas

The second keynote speech occurred on Day 2, with Mick Liubinskas from ClimateSalad addressing the delegates. He spoke about the connection between climate technology and water in his role as a climate tech activator and investor.

Liubinskas spoke about what climate technology is achieving as it provides scalable solutions to environmental problems.

“The first thing we need to think about when it comes to climate tech is working out the impact,” he said. “The first thing is to reduce emissions. This year might be the first year we don’t increase emissions globally. We also need to remove emissions that are already out there. Carbon sequestration is one way to do this. It’s too late just to reduce and remove emissions; we must also adapt to the new climate normality. We need technology to help us adapt to it. Natural capital is the final aspect of the impact, as nature can help us manage resources better.”

Liubinskas also spoke about the market segments to look at, the different technologies that can be used, the stage of the companies he is working with, the different customers, market segments and funding for the enterprise. He highlighted that there is a lot of complexity in developing technology to help the climate. There are now 480 companies working with ClimateSalad, up from the original 12 when he started.

He introduced several Australian case studies where Australian companies are working with ClimateSalad to scale up. He identified GoTerra, FloodMapp, Kelpy, and MGA Thermal – all companies that have developed technology that supports the reduction of emissions and improved climate outcomes.

Panels

There were several panel discussions throughout the two-day conference. The first was the Regulators Panel, with Freya Marsden, Chair of the Victorian Government Sustainability Fund, moderating the discussion. She was joined by Commissioner and Chairperson of the Essential Services Commission (ESC) Kate Symons and CEO of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Victoria Lee Miezis.

The next panel of the day was on customer affordability. All panel members talked about what they were seeing, with more people relying on food banks and nearly two in three people struggling to pay their utility bills. Water corporations have implemented various approaches to help identify and provide assistance to customers in need, many of whom are experiencing financial hardship for the first time.

On Day 2, the non-regulated revenue initiatives panel was interesting. Many Victorian water corporations have developed businesses or entities that provide a source of non-regulated revenue. The panel looked at the drivers for pursuing non-regulated revenue initiatives. They also looked at what considerations were taken into account when developing or establishing these businesses. The panel broadly agreed that their businesses were meeting and exceeding their expectations.

The final panel discussion examined how the industry can support regional economic growth. Water corporations are one of regional Victoria’s major employers. The panel sought to discuss water corporations’ role in supporting the economic growth of the regions in which they operate. There was considerable debate about the role of water corporations in this space going forward, with unanimous agreement that water corporations will continue to play a critical role in the regions.

As Lim and Middleton closed the conference, they encouraged the attendees to return next year. They also discussed the upcoming events that VicWater would offer throughout the remainder of 2023 and into 2024.

For more information, visit https://vicwater.org.au/

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