Local communities and sustainable water practices

Engaging communities on water quality testing and stormwater management promotes cultural ownership and investment in sustainable water practices.

Engaging communities in water quality testing and stormwater management promotes cultural ownership and investment in sustainable water practices.

A team of UNSW social scientists and water engineers is working with local communities to maintain the health of their waterways. The project will build community knowledge of local stormwater management systems, such as wetlands and water quality testing.

UNSW is partnering with Riverwood Community Centre in Canterbury Bankstown and Georges Riverkeeper. This work is being conducted through the Georges River Combined Councils’ Committee.

The project, funded by Sydney Water, will develop a community engagement model for local councils to improve community water knowledge. It will promote meaningful long-term connections with water.

“The research addresses some of the disconnections between communities, water authorities and local water infrastructure,” said project lead Dr Marilu Melo Zurita from UNSW’s Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture.

For example, the Salt Pan Creek Wetlands in Riverwood support diverse local activities, including one of the largest community gardens in New South Wales.

“The wetlands are the centrepiece of the community’s engagement and recreational activities for families. Yet awareness of how they connect to the wider water system and its purpose has not been explored,” said Zurita.

“The project will develop water literacy within this community group with a strong track record of green initiatives to show the value of connecting water infrastructure to people.”

The importance of wetlands

Wetlands are an example of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), an area of research interest for Dr Melo Zurita. WSUD technologies remove stormwater pollution before it reaches our waterways. It repurposes nutrients for vegetation and enabling the potential for treated stormwater reuse. They mimic the natural water cycle where possible to better protect the local environment and waterways.

“You might have gone for a walk around some WSUD technologies. If you’ve been to Sydney Park, you probably have seen extensive wetlands and enjoyed them. They’re quite beautiful. The water flows, there’s bird life, there’s a lot of vegetation growing around it,” the human geographer and social scientist said.

“Sometimes we walk along these paths and don’t fully appreciate what is involved in keeping them going. These water systems perform a function in the urban space for water, in terms of cleaning water, making it flow.”

Dr Melo Zurita, Dr Veljko Prodanovic, a Senior Research Associate at the UNSW Water Research Centre, and Ms Nabila Namira, an undergraduate research student at UNSW, are working with the Riverwood Community Centre to monitor and test the wetland water quality. “These measurements can help us understand what the system does. For example, when there is rain or when there are periods of drought,” said Zurita.

She added that engaging with different groups helps establish these systems as part of our lives. “This will create legacy knowledge on water challenges for the local populace and promote further community self-education beyond this project.”

Sustainable water practices for the future

The project will also deliver community-led sessions. They will also develop new wetlands signage and community participation activities, such as community-guided tours, to promote that sense of community ownership.

“Projects like this show the true value in interdisciplinary research to promote sustainable water practices for the future,” said Prodanovic. “For an engineer, it is important to design and construct infrastructure to complement and support the local community. Green and blue spaces that WSUD technologies provide could provide even more benefits with involvement of local community knowledge and sense of ownership over these spaces.”

The project methodology will be shared through the Georges Riverkeeper, City of Canterbury Bankstown and Sydney Water networks. They seek to promote future community engagement in line with Sydney Water’s water literacy and advocacy program.

This is one of six community projects recognised by Sydney Water’s Community Grants program. $10,000 was allocated for its ability to improve water literacy in the local community.

Sydney Water is proud to support projects aimed at enhancing community members’ level of water education. It also increases the understanding of the value of water today. In the future, it should generate environmental, social, economic or cultural benefits for these communities.

Creating water systems that support community needs

Dr Melo Zurita is interested in how humans interact with their immediate environments to develop inclusive and sustainable living environments. She wants to cover everything from water to soil, even underground sites of urban development and cultural significance.

She said the current techno-centric trend minimises social considerations in water design and management. In her ongoing collaborations with the Georges Riverkeeper, Dr Melo Zurita have researched how communities interact with WSUD to inform their design.

“We want to know what these systems are doing for the communities around them. It is not just about the water and vegetation and the wildlife. It is also what they do in terms of communities. During the lockdown, these spaces became essential for mental and physical health [or they can be] a safe space for multiple groups,” said Zurita.

Dr Melo Zurita, Dr Veljko Prodanovic and then master’s student Taylor Coyne investigated historical changes in the relationships between urban communities and water infrastructures in the Georges River catchment. The river crosses six Indigenous countries and eight council areas, so these relationships are historically complex.

This collaboration with UNSW students, funded by the Georges Riverkeeper, carried out behavioural mapping, observing contemporary patterns of use. It investigated areas such as exercise, dog/walking, picnicking, and surveys. The team examined post-European settlement historical documents, maps, journals and newspaper articles. They published a paper as a result of this aspect of the research. It traced shifts in water values and perspectives over time and how these affected interactions with and governance of the river.

Why sustainable water practices are central to building communities

“[The river] became at times a hydraulic project… How do you divert this body of water in different directions? How do you change it? Then it became a dangerous, menacing river, the waters rising and threatening the urban development around it,” she said.

‘We want to know what these systems are doing for the communities around them. We should look not only for the water and vegetation and the wildlife but also what they do in terms of communities… During the lockdown, these spaces became essential for mental and physical health.’

“And then it became the recreation river, where people would go fishing, swimming… The river has been perceived differently [at different times], and it has invited different stakeholders to enjoy or be part of the decision-making processes of the river.”

Understanding these changing relationships is vital for designing fit-for-purpose water infrastructure. Her research with Mr Coyne proposed moving from purely technical models for stormwater management to culturally inclusive water urban design.

Future of sustainable water practices

Mr Coyne, now a PhD candidate at UNSW, said: “Culturally inclusive water urban design links the social with the ecological. There is a need to reflect on people’s connections and uses of urban waterscapes to ensure urban water design considers its social, technical, cultural, ecological and political ramifications.”

Dr Melo Zurita and undergraduate student Max Kwok have also collaborated to propose recommendations for WSUD guidelines and cultural considerations for water management in and around the Georges River.

“WSUD originally paid a lot of attention to water, vegetation, and some of the species that might thrive within these environments. But the cultural component of it, the recognition that this is Country, Indigenous Country, [for example] is absent from these processes.

“I think that the questions about water and the city answered from only a technical perspective are limited,” she said. “By inviting social scientists, we can help bring all these different perspectives into the conversation. I think their presence is essential for the health of the ecosystems that we live in, that we are part of…

“What we do today has repercussions and ripples in the future, but we also need to pay attention to the ripples of the past, to what has [already] happened.”

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