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Sustainable Water Management: Essential for Project Success

Water is a critical aspect of major construction projects that is all too often not given appropriate consideration until it is too late to develop a sustainable management plan. This article discusses the importance of ensuring water is given its due consideration throughout the life of major development projects.

China is currently going through a period of intense development, the likes of which the world has not seen since the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. This unprecedented development is bringing with it enormous benefits through economic growth and opportunity for the Chinese people, but it is also putting significant pressure on the country’s limited natural resources, including water. There are major risks for future generations if growth and development does not also ensure that available resources are used sustainably. It is reported that as many as 300 million people in China do not have access to safe, clean drinking water (Feng, 2007), whilst desertification in northern parts of China threatens to diminish water supplies necessary for livelihood and indeed survival. Severe environmental damage will continue to occur and impact local communities until appropriate stewardship is exercised by all stakeholders including industry and Government at all levels.

In the words of Nobel Prize winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi “Water is life’s matter, mother and medium” (1937 Nobel Prize acceptance speech). This statement certainly rings true when considering the feasibility and success of a development, regardless of whether it is related to oil and gas, mining, power, agriculture or any other project that has potential to use, or impact in a significant way on water sources. It is essential then, that the water aspects of a project are considered through the entire project life, from conception through to closure, not just for the success of the project but also to ensure the conservation of the world’s precious water resources for the benefit of future generations. Water can exist in many forms within what is known as the hydrological cycle, including surface water, groundwater and water held within the atmosphere, all of which are inextricably linked. It is therefore essential that an integrated water management approach is taken when considering the water-related aspects of a project, to ensure that all components of the hydrological cycle are addressed. Indeed we cannot understand one component of the hydrological cycle without some understanding of the cycle as a whole.

Figure 1 shows a sketch of the hydrologic cycle at a typical project site that highlights the complex interaction between groundwater, surface water, rainfall, and groundwater abstraction. A major consideration during the assessment is the transient nature of the hydrologic cycle and the variations that occur seasonally, and annually depending on the amount of precipitation and the groundwater pumping rates. The main purpose of the water resources assessment is to ensure that the design abstraction rates are sustainable over the entire project life, which may span 20 to 30 or more years. Figure 1- Hydrological Cycle at a Typical Project Site (Natural Resources Canada, 2008) Figure 1: Hydrological Cycle at a Typical Project Site (Natural Resources Canada, 2008)

It is becoming even more important to take a holistic approach to water management given the current and future changes to the hydrologic system attributed to climate change. Climate change, regardless of whether one believes the cause is anthropogenic or naturally occurring, has led to reduced rainfall in some parts of the world and an excess in others, and generally increasing the level of uncertainty in relation to predicting the likelihood and severity of weather events. This can impact developments by limiting available water supply; or cause damage, project delays and loss of operating time due to flooding. We only need look at the flood events in north-eastern Australia and in south-central China in 2011 and the devastating effect across the region to know that such events cannot be predicted and that the contingencies to cope with such events are simply inadequate. Whilst severe weather events may be unavoidable, by having an understanding of the consequences and likelihood of an event, the overall risk to the development can be understood and managed accordingly.

Despite the obvious and growing challenges being faced globally in relation to water, there are a range of tools and technologies, and an increasing level of expertise available to help assess the project impacts on water, reduce and mitigate the impacts, and provide the certainty needed for a project to proceed in a sustainable manner. This includes a range of investigation techniques, both field based methods and the use of advanced Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and modeling software to help characterize and understand hydrological systems and develop platforms to predict possible impacts and changes to those systems as a result of both the project itself, and external forces (such as climate change). The challenge lies in understanding the unique aspects of a project and knowing what tools to apply in which situations to ensure that maximum value is achieved from the limited resources available.

It is also important to have a detailed understanding of the regulatory environment in which you are operating when planning water related studies. The regulatory landscape changes constantly as new pressures are identified, government regulations are revised and updated, and new assessment methodologies are developed.

The key to designing a good water study or management plan is to understand firstly what the objectives and aims of the study or plan are and secondly to consider the project in its entirety. Many studies are undertaken purely to meet the requirements of the regulators without considering the actual long term operational requirements of the project, or without a firm grasp on the actual purpose of the study. It is therefore important that appropriate time and resources are applied during the planning stage to design a programme which maximizes its effectiveness, meeting both regulatory requirements and achieving the level of certainty required for the project to proceed. This approach reduces the chance of duplicating work, ensures that maximum value is achieved, and that measures can be introduced to use the water sources sustainably.

Another important consideration when planning a project is having an understanding of the timeframes required to complete the required water related studies. For example, it is not uncommon for the development of a groundwater supply, from an initial scoping study to actually turning on the tap to take a number of years, particularly where there are complex environmental and social aspects that need to be understood and addressed. For example, a water supply well-field which has recently been brought online for a large mining development in Mongolia took more than ten years to investigate, design and install.  Similarly, there are often also requirements to obtain baseline data over months or even years before a water supply can be accessed, or construction can be commenced where there is possibility for impact to the regional water resources. So the earlier in the development the water study is commenced, the better planned it is, the less likely this will cause delays to the overall project, and the greater the chance that sustainable water management can be successfully achieved.

About the author 

Ashley is a hydrogeologist and water management professional, with experience in Australia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China and is a member of the International Association of Hydrogeologists. Ashley started his professional career with the West Australian Government – Department of Water, using regulatory processes and tools in relation to water management for mining and mining related infrastructure projects (railways, roads, ports etc.). Since joining the consulting world Ashley has conducted and managed a range of hydrogeological, groundwater management, and multi-disciplinary (integrated ground and surface water) projects in Australia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan for a range of purposes including water supply, water management and water source protection. 

References

Feng, Z. 2007. More Deserts, Less Water Could Sink Rising China. March 20, 2007. http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200703/20/eng20070320_359282.html

Natural Resources Canada. 2008. Groundwater. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/products-services/mapping-product/geoscape/ottawa/6060

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