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  • Richard

To Australia ....

Melbourne27 Feb

Visiting Melbourne en route to Brisbane Water Futures Conference, looking at water past and present (always in the context of what this can mean for today’s low-income developing communities around the world), finding fascinating background material about watsan development in in ‘the dry continent’ in “Frost, L., Gaynor, A., Gregory, J., Morgan, R., O’Hanlon, S., Spearritt, P and Young, P. (2016) Water, history and the Australian city: urbanism, suburbanism and water in a dry continent, 1788-2015, Melbourne, Australia: Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities.”

USD$53,800 GDP per person (



Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was instituted to operate the city’s water supply, stormwater drains and build a sewerage system. The MMBW took over the debts from the Department of Water Supply, and work on the sewerage system began in 1897.”

“There is a debate amongst Australian economic historians as to whether the decision to create the MMBW was driven by concern of the social costs of poor sanitation (typhoid epidemics and pollution) that impacted on society as a whole, or the private costs (taxes, charges and rents) that came out of people’s pockets. While plans to build a comprehensive sewerage system in Melbourne were approved in 1890, following the typhoid epidemic of the previous year, Sinclair contends that this decision was delayed until the estimated cost was no greater than that of alternative methods of disposal.26 In contemporary overseas cities, the issue of private costs was central to the advancement, or delay, in providing modern sanitary infrastructure. As Briggs observes, ‘Throughout the Victorian age, the most effective argument for sanitary reform was that it would actually save money in the long run, not squander it’.

“As population density increases, labour-intensive methods of waste disposal become more costly. Growing city populations provide economies of scale to offset high cost of capital-intensive infrastructure. At some stage a growing city reaches a point at which cost of maintaining old, inefficient technology would equal that of replacing with new, more efficient methods. At that point, a city will pursue the rational course and build a sewerage system. Merrett’s response to Sinclair’s argument suggests a more optimistic view of contemporary attitudes towards private and social costs. The anticipated cost of sewerage to the householder was in fact double that of old system of pan collection. Pan collection costs not as high as Sinclair suggests. Thousands of households, especially in the outer suburbs, used backyard cesspits that provided free sanitation, so change to a compulsory system of sewerage would necessarily represent an increase in private costs.

“Sewerage and the disposal of night soil remained a problem in the new outer areas, with the MMBW struggling to keep up with demand. ‘By 1926 more than 17,000 properties remained unsewered’ in Melbourne, which while obviously unacceptable to locals, was less than a quarter of the equivalent figure for Sydney’.” “By 1955, ‘properties without sewerage numbered 52,140, and barely half the new buildings each year were being connected’.” “As in the nineteenth century then, in the mid-twentieth century Melburnians en masse opted for the sanctity of the private house and private affluence over the provision of public goods and services. But, given the labour, materials and financial shortages of the period these were as much enforced choices as personal ones.”

Subsequently “All ratepayers were required to have drains connecting to main sewer built at their own expense, and required fittings – lavatories and cisterns – increased costs further. Merrett concludes that these extra up-front charges would have met the costs of pan collection for another decade. The apparent lack of concern for private costs of investment reflected Melbourne’s general wealth and willingness to pay for improvements to the quality of urban life. In British and American cities, the effectiveness of sewerage systems was often compromised by a resistance to higher charges, which resulted in systems being constructed and operated cheaply.”

With regard to later sanitation development in Melbourne the CRC authors report that during the development of the suburbs in the 1950’s, “soon dubbed ‘heartbreak streets’, these places were often rather bleak – hot and dusty in summer and cold, wet and muddy in winter. Many of these houses had no gas, no electricity, no sewerage, no roads or footpaths, and at best access to an intermittent public transport service. Many residents had limited access to water on their individual block, with many reliant on a communal tap located at the end of an unmade, muddy street. Sewerage disposal remained either the province of the night soil cart, or increasingly the backyard septic tank.”

Water Resources: Victorian Desalination Plant

Melbourne faces the same challenges with regard to water supply as for all big and growing cities, exacerbated here by drought. Visiting the coast, sandbars on river mouths illustrate the lack of flow in rivers, highlighting the water resources challenge.

I first learnt about the supply challenge in Suez ‘Foresight Advisory Council’ days, Suez explaining about their desalination project – “On 30 July 2009, the Victorian Government awarded the Victorian Desalination Project contract to AquaSure to finance, build, maintain and operate the project for 30 years. AquaSure's fixed price for construction of the whole project is $3.5 billion. The total maximum net present cost of financing, building and operating the plant over 30 years is $5.7 billion (assuming water orders of 150 billion litres per year).

One of my ongoing issues in FAC meetings had been about community involvement in water and sanitation. Pleased to read that “The community’s views and feelings about the Victorian Desalination Project, and the way AquaSure and its contractors are doing their job are very important to the project team. As a result, AquaSure has a stakeholder and community engagement program and we actively encourage members of the local community to maintain a dialogue with us.” (

“AquaSure will be an important part of Wonthaggi’s community for 30 years – as an employer, neighbour, customer and corporate citizen – and we are committed to developing this project as a source of local pride.”

In 2010 Suez had been briefing about the high saline dispersion available because of the discharge to the Bass Straits where strong currents between Victoria and Tasmania solve one of the common desal problems – so a photo of course ….

I found recent reports explaining that “Water has begun flowing from Victoria's desalination plant, more than four years after it was completed, as the State Government moves to reassure Victorians that water bills will not go up as the result of a new regular water order. (

The first 50 gigalitres of desalinated water began flowing into the Cardinia Reservoir over the weekend, and the Government said it would order another 15 gigalitres a year for the next three years.

The Government ordered the first lot of water almost a year ago, and consumers were expected to be facing a AUD$12 bill increase as a result.

Water Minister Lisa Neville said the cost of the regular order would be completely offset by efficiencies found in the plant operator's water contract.

"In that three-year period for either this 50 gigalitre or for that minimum water order over the next three years there will be no additional cost to people's water bills for that water order," she said. The plant was finished in December 2012 but has sat idle since. Earlier this month, an electrical fault at the plant forced the operator to install 30 diesel generators the size of shipping containers as an emergency back-up power supply.

Suez had told FAC that the whole plant was to be supplied energy from green energy wind plants, north of the city …

“There was no need for the Victorian Government to place a $27 million order with the state's desalination plant for supplies for the coming summer, Victoria's Opposition party has said.

Shadow treasurer Michael O'Brien said the water was not needed as the state's dams were more than 60 per cent [full] and the Bureau of Meteorology is predicting above average rainfall.

"This is simply Daniel Andrews increasing people's water bills to prove that his giant desal plant, his giant white elephant, actually works," he said.” (

I was unable to visit the plant on this visit but in asking about the project one Victoria resident explained that one of his friends, and other technician staff reportedly, are ‘being paid AUD150,000 to sit and do nothing’. This of course after cost overruns in construction due to ‘union pressures’ , Suez reporting.

Water - and sanitation sewerage - costs. And ensuring resilience of supply in ever-changing climates costs even more. But after all the customer surveys that is all that customers want - a guaranteed supply of clean drinking water.

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