3Our Campaigns 2Healthy Rivers & Nature 1About Healthy Rivers 0The solution for healthy rivers Water sensitive towns and cities

Water sensitive towns and cities

Victoria’s towns and cities were designed on a traditional ‘once through’ basis. Water is captured and stored in remote areas, fed or pumped through a series of pipes to properties and businesses and then through a further series of pipes to the waste treatment plant. Ultimately this water is discharged to a river or the ocean.

This is the opposite of a ‘water sensitive’ city that uses its water resources efficiently and sustainably.

The definition of a water sensitive city is the subject of considerable international research and discussion, but there is strong agreement on three fundamental principles or ‘pillars’:

    • Cities are water supply catchments: meaning the city has access to a range of different water sources which include localised sewage treatment and recycling, stormwater capture, and harvesting of rainwater before it enters the stormwater system.
    • Cities provide ecosystem services: meaning they supplement and support the functions of the natural environment and provide benefits such as clean water and erosion control.
    • Cities comprise water sensitive communities: meaning the socio-political capital for sustainability exists and that citizens’ decision making and behaviour are water sensitive.


Transitioning to a water sensitive city requires multiple approaches and community participation. Some of the differences between a traditional, once through water management regime and a water sensitive regime are outlined in Figure 6.

Victorians have made huge efforts to conserve water in their homes and businesses. Melbourne today consumes about the same volume of water as it did in the mid-1970s, despite having more than a million extra residents. The community strongly supports better use of our precious and limited water supplies and more recycling and stormwater capture. The Target 155 campaign to limit water use to 155 litres/person/day was a huge success and encouraged householders to reduce their water use even further. Businesses embraced the EPA’s Environment and Resource Efficiency Plan (EREP) program to find cost-effective means of saving water which encouraged them to seek further savings and efficiencies.[1]

The Brumby Government’s Central Region Sustainable Water Strategy of 2006 broke new ground by assessing the potential impacts of climate change on water resources. It took a highly innovative approach, using water conservation and efficiency measures as its starting point. It discussed integrating urban and water planning and supported local scale recycling projects, at the same time as creating environmental entitlements for the region’s stressed rivers. It set in train an upgrade for the Eastern Treatment Plant which now produces about 120 GL Class A recycled water per year. The challenge now is to find a use for this valuable recycled water resource beyond the existing Eastern Irrigation Scheme (that uses about 6 GL) and isolated examples of third pipe systems in new housing developments.

The previous Coalition government attempted to implement Integrated Water Cycle Management (IWCM) through the Office of Living Victoria (OLV). Unfortunately good policy became the victim of bad process and the OLV was closed down following a scathing Ombudsman’s report. Leadership now would mean reigniting this concept with better governance and a renewed mandate.

Insert sidebar glossary: Integrated water cycle management considers the water cycle as a whole and how planning for each element of water services (drinking water, sewerage, stormwater, rivers and groundwater) can merge to provide more sustainable environmental, economic and social outcomes.

The Andrews Government has the opportunity to build on these past achievements and capitalise on the work done by the Office of Living Victoria in developing the Melbourne’s Water Future strategy. The government has committed to a Yarra Protection Act intended to control development in the Yarra River corridor. There’s a great opportunity to build on that foundation to create an Act that embeds IWCM into the planning framework and then extend the provisions state-wide. With parallel changes to the Water Act, we would be well on the way to being world leaders in making our cities water sensitive.


Key planks in a new plan should include:

  • Capturing stormwater runoff to increase water availability and reduce damage to urban creeks and rivers
  • Improving rates of water recycling in urban areas – currently only 16 percent of treated wastewater is reused in Victoria (the same proportion as 10 years ago), mostly for irrigated agriculture
  • Embedding water efficiency in new and existing homes and businesses (as discussed in Environment Victoria’s report Six Steps to Efficiency Leadership)
  • Establishing a domestic drinking water consumption target of 100 litres/person/day Households should be able to consume as much recycled water or stormwater as required
  • Comprehensively integrating IWCM and Water Sensitive Urban Design in the planning framework at a variety of scales.

The Yarra Protection Act also offers an opportunity to untangle the complex web of agencies with responsibility for the Yarra River. The establishment of a Yarra River Protection Trust to integrate land use planning, water resource management and environmental management would be a great step forward.

Wade back to the healthy rivers page >