Strategic Priorities for Australia’s Water Utilities in 2024

Facing a rapidly growing population and long-term climate change, Australia’s water utilities are bracing for increased demand from both households and businesses in the years ahead. They understand that any supply restrictions or disruptions could have serious consequences.

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For this reason, attention has turned to the issues and challenges that will be a priority in the coming year. Management teams need to ensure that resources are allocated where they will deliver the most value and keep operations fully functional. The top five areas of focus should be:

1. Undertaking ongoing strategic planning

During 2024, strategic planning will remain vitally important for water utilities of all sizes. As the sector grapples with aging infrastructure, escalating urbanisation, and ever-increasing regulatory pressures, the necessity to modernise infrastructure while ensuring efficient, sustainable service delivery becomes acute.

Forward-thinking utilities will put in place long-term strategies that encompass asset management, infrastructure investment, and customer-centric approaches to ensure the delivery of safe, high-quality water. By carefully aligning these factors with overarching business objectives, utilities can achieve operational efficiency while also effectively managing costs.

2. Climate change and ESG will remain priorities

Climate change's pervasive impact is acutely felt in the water utilities sector. The unpredictability of weather patterns, longer droughts, and intensified extreme weather events pose a considerable threat to water supplies.

Consequently, utilities will continue to face tremendous pressure to adopt environmentally sustainable practices and meet stringent ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) standards. Investments in water conservation, recycling, and reducing overall carbon footprints will need to be fundamental pillars in the industry's strategic planning processes, whilst at the same time maintaining safe operations.

The incorporation of sustainable practices is not only an environmental and regulatory necessity but also a strategic move for utilities to ensure long-term reliability and efficiency. Transitioning to eco-friendly technologies, optimising water treatment processes, and reducing wastage are imperative steps toward achieving both sustainability goals and compliance with increasingly stringent environmental regulations.

3. AI will become more widely used to aid network performance and maximise the value of customer data sets

The utilisation of artificial intelligence (AI) has become something of a game-changer for water utilities. This is because AI tools are adept at proactively detecting and predicting issues in distribution networks.

By employing advanced algorithms capable of analysing large datasets, utilities can identify irregularities, leakages, or inefficiencies within their water infrastructures. Armed with such tools, utilities will be able to minimise water losses, optimise resource distribution, and lower operational costs, to ensure a more sustainable and resilient water supply.

During 2024, the integration of AI and machine learning technologies will also increasingly streamline maintenance processes, enabling utilities to shift from reactive to proactive approaches.

4. Cybersecurity will remain a challenge

The increased use of sophisticated technology within water utilities brings with it a critical concern - cybersecurity. As systems become more interconnected and reliant on digital infrastructure, their vulnerability to cyber threats escalates.

With critical infrastructure at risk, utilities face substantial pressure to fortify their systems against cyberattacks. The need for robust security measures is paramount to ensure the protection of data, prevent service disruptions, the confidence of customers and maintain public safety.

During the coming year, water utilities must embrace a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity, encompassing robust IT infrastructure, employee training, incident response protocols, and regular security assessments. Collaboration with cybersecurity experts and government bodies to stay abreast of emerging threats and regulations will also be vital.

5.The skills shortage will remain

Water utilities will continue to grapple with the ongoing challenge of recruiting and retaining skilled professionals. The impending retirement of experienced personnel, coupled with the demand for specialised expertise in emerging technologies, poses a significant threat to the industry's future stability.

During 2024, the sector must invest in training and educational programs to bridge the skills gap and attract a new generation of talent. Efforts in educational partnerships, mentorship programs, and the promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields and vocational training are essential to nurture a pipeline of skilled workers. Additionally, re-skilling programs for existing employees to adapt to technological advancements can serve as a bridge to address the skills deficit.

It’s clear that 2024 will be an important time for water utilities to re-evaluate and recalibrate their plans in response to the multi-faceted challenges they face. Strategic planning, fuelled by sustainability and innovation, is paramount to navigate the unpredictable terrain of climate change, technological advancements, cybersecurity threats, and workforce scarcity.

It will be important for utilities to embrace change, adopt resilient methodologies, and stay ahead in an ever-evolving landscape. Only through concerted long-term planning and adaptation can the sector ensure a sustainable, reliable, and safe water supply for all.

About the author

Peter Murphy is the Head of Resources – Capability and Delivery for Atturra’s Advisory business. With 20 years spent in the military, Peter has led a wide range of operational and safety-based projects for Atturra Advisory. He is a regular guest speaker and presenter on the topics of safety and operations for both local and international conferences. He has published papers on Senior Leadership in Times of Crisis and Safety Regulation in High Hazard Industry.

Peter Murphy, 6 min read