Ozwater’22 and AWA brings industry together

AWA CEO Corinne Cheeseman addressing Ozwater'22 at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Center

Ozwater’22 is run by the Australian Water Association (AWA). It is a member organisation for individuals and organisations operating throughout the water management space.

Its members are from water utilities and authorities, local, state and government agencies, regulators, private sector consultants, contractors and suppliers, universities and research organisations and much more, covering the full scope of water management. It has more than 5,000 individual members and more than 500 corporate members.

AWA CEO, Corinne Cheeseman, spoke to Inside Water to discuss the outcomes of Ozwater’22, some key highlights, issues brought to light, innovations and the industry’s future. Cheeseman has been CEO since May 2020 but has been involved in the water industry for more than 20 years. She had led AWA in driving change, digital transformation and delivering strategic objectives.

Cheeseman explained that since its establishment 60 years ago, the AWA has always encouraged adaptation and innovation. Having formed in 1962, it ran with the post-war installation of water and sanitation high on the national agenda. AWA started as a volunteer-run organisation, and this continued for its first 20-plus years. Today, it has more than 30 staff nationally, with more than 400 volunteers helping the industry meet its goals.

“Over the six decades, so much has changed in water management,” said Cheeseman. “Originally, water infrastructure was the solution to providing reliable water supply and treatment of wastewater. So most of our members were engineers. Today, a range of solutions and a multidisciplinary approach is needed to solve complex water problems. Today, our members are from a more diverse range of organisations and disciplines. They include scientists, engineers, urban designers and planners, consultants, researchers, educators, community consultation, policymakers, regulators, data analysts, data scientists, information technologists, strategists, asset managers, catchment managers, field workers, manufacturers and tradies.”

Australia’s changing weather patterns over the past few decades have contributed to an increase in the organisation’s numbers.

“The Millennium Drought in the early 1990s was a huge challenge. During this period, our membership grew as the Association became a key thought leader and connector of a range of people in different disciplines who were required to meet the issues associated with climate change,” said Cheeseman.

AWA and Ozwater’22 Highlights

There were over 130 technical presentations, 82 pitch presentations, multiple workshop and panel sessions, and keynote speakers across the three days of Ozwater’22.

The discussion on First Nations People Knowledge & Participation was one of the highlights and an important topic for achieving water sustainability in the country as Australia goes on its reconciliation journey. The sub-theme on Achieving a Circular Economy was also important and insightful. This has been a topic for many years. There were tangible examples where AWA members were progressing towards this, which will be a key part of the water sector in the future.

“The discussions on Rural, Remote & Regional Water are much needed if Australia is to meet the unique challenges of water management there, which ties into the need for the Voices for the Bush Conference that we are holding in Alice Springs in August to focus on the very real challenges and solutions for regional and remote water managers,” said Cheeseman.

Cheeseman acknowledged that it is always a great challenge to organise and host Ozwater. It has been made more difficult in the past few years with border closures and changing COVID restrictions. She said the success of the event came down to the AWA team and its Ozwater Program Committee. They make each Ozwater a success, as well as all the presenters, attendees and exhibitors who deliver great content, as well as the exhibition itself.

The Ozwater Gala Dinner celebrated the achievements of the water sector through AWA’s National Water Awards. According to Cheeseman, the water sector is collaborative. It is the building of relationships and work that continues long after the event, which makes it so important.

AWA has sought to share, connect and inspire, and Ozwater’22 lived up to this promise. There is no other event like Ozwater where you can come to be inspired by thought leaders. People can hear about projects and research across a range of core and cutting-edge water topics. They participate in discussions through workshops and the forum, said Cheeseman. Ozwater’22 was such a great success that she is confident it will continue to increase its numbers and impact ahead – which is why she is already looking forward to Ozwater’23, which will be held at the International Convention Centre, Sydney, from 10-12 May next year.

Panels of note at Ozwater’22 and AWA

While Cheeseman could not get to as many panels and workshops as she would have liked, she received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Dr. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Bauman AM’s speech connected with many attendees, providing a collaborative and respectful way forward. Her clear message was that we needed to listen when collaborating with others. For many, this was a very powerful message at the outset of the conference.

“I also thought Dr. Catherine Ball’s presentation on cyber-attacks in the water sector was a frightening wake-up call to modern threats facing water management in the context of a connected world. She also had some great takeaways about how we can all manage our risks around cyber security,” said Cheeseman.

When looking at the innovations that came out of Ozwater’22, one that caught our eye were the saltwater sniffing dogs. Cheeseman agreed that seeing what these dogs are capable of is amazing. The dogs can find saltwater leaks and other potential leaks faster than traditional methods and pinpoint the exact locations where they are occuring. They have a minimal environmental impact, too.

“It’s a really exciting and simple way to deal with a range of issues that would regularly need investigation, including leaks into stormwater grates and canals, main pressure leaks and illegal discharge of septic wastewater,” said Cheeseman. “It’s heartening to see the innovations occurring all over the sector that our members drive. I thought this was a standout as innovation does not always need a technological solution, so this is a great example.”

Carbon emission reduction focus of AWA

Carbon emission reduction was a topic of discussion at the event. Several speakers talked about how the water sector is working to reduce carbon emissions and meet its targets. Cheeseman spoke about the importance of opening the discussions, with sharing and learning being great opportunities at Ozwater. Those working in the water sector know that availability of water is impacted by climate change.

“As water managers, we have to manage with less water. There will be more extreme and frequent droughts, as well as the impacts of floods on our assets and customers,” said Cheeseman. “For example, in the recent floods, the impact on water treatment plants meant customers had to save water. It is quite ironic but something we must manage.”

People may not know that 13 Australian water utilities joined the UN-led “Race to Zero” campaign at COP26 this year. Since then, others have come on board. They pledged to reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050 or earlier, a commitment that must be matched by sectors worldwide.

The students in the Student Stream were impressive and gave everyone in attendance great optimism about the future of water management in Australia. 

Cheeseman identified Elkia Szczecinski (Curtin University) as deserving of mention as the Student Water Prize winner. Her research focused on compounds in drinking water that cause plastic tastes. Her exploration of improving the efficiency and cost of desalinated water production will help resolve this problem while offering greater long-term sustainability benefits.

Cheeseman is already working with the Ozwater Program Committee to plan for Ozwater’23 in Sydney next year. She is looking forward to seeing the water management leaders in Australia and abroad together again under one roof. While she does not want to give too much away just yet, Cheeseman did say there will definitely be a focus on resilience and climate change as it is now a core business for water managers. While there are many challenges ahead, the water sector will continue to work towards a sustainable
water future.

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