An Approach to Sustainability Management for Water Utilities

Uhlmann, Vikki (2005). An Approach to Sustainability Management for Water Utilities PhD Thesis, School of Engineering, University of Queensland.

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Author Uhlmann, Vikki
Thesis Title An Approach to Sustainability Management for Water Utilities
School, Centre or Institute School of Engineering
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2005
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Abstract/Summary The aim of this research was to explore an approach aimed at developing water utility attitudes towards adopting sustainability management practices. In doing so a toolkit called SUST, intended to be affordable, practical and user-friendly, was developed for use by water utilities in defining, assessing and improving their sustainability. Multi-disciplinary in nature, SUST was developed from a range of best practice concepts in the literature, and designed to balance the social, environment and economic components of a “triple bottom line” conception of sustainability. The major contributions of this research are: 1. An improved method of sustainability assessment and reporting for water utilities, SUST, which achieved support from the majority of participating regulatory agencies. 2. A complete step by step process whereby utilities and their stakeholders can agree on a vision of sustainability, then measure and make improvements. 3. A definition of a sustainable water utility which has been refined by participating utilities and agencies. 4. An educational tool for improving understanding of sustainability. 5. Recognition that, to be practical, affordable and user-friendly, a sustainability indicator set must also meet regulatory reporting requirements and, at least in the interim, traditional indicators may need to be incorporated, in contrast to Lundin’s (1999) view that they should not be used. 6. Agreement by water utilities and regulatory agencies that the water utility practice of selecting a set of sustainability indicators without first developing an agreed vision of sustainability is not effective. 7. Some evidence that a standardized sustainability indicator set could be developed using SUST and could be used by water utilities, which presents exciting prospects. 8. Evidence that many water utilities have a long way to go before they can address some of the cornerstones of water utility sustainability – total water cycle management, real value pricing and public involvement. 9. The beginnings of a tool for use in achieving culture change in a water utility organisation. Five SUST modules were developed as part of the research: 1. Sustainability management steps for systematic and rigorous decision-making; 2. Definition of a sustainable water utility as a starting point for a sustainability vision; 3. Selection criteria for choosing sustainability indicators; 4. A model sustainability indicator set which could be used to measure progress against the definition; 5. Multi-criteria analysis (MCA) software for systematically and rigorously assessing sustainability and options for improvement. Three research questions were developed and addressed: 1. What is the current status of sustainability reporting by water utilities in the Australian State of Queensland and what are the barriers to its improvement? 2. What is the usefulness of SUST as an approach to developing sustainability management in Queensland? 3. Does the use of SUST by water utilities achieve regulator and public agency support? A water industry survey was conducted with a number of water utilities to address Question 1 and provide initial data in relation to Question 2. Subsequent case study trials with two utilities utilising a refined SUST obtained more in-depth data on Question 2 and also addressed Question 3. Question 1 findings identified the major barrier to improved sustainability management as a lack of understanding of the concept, with current performance reporting bearing little relationship to cornerstone sustainability issues. Initial feedback on Question 2 indicated that SUST may be able to assist in addressing these issues. Survey respondents supported the foundations of SUST and most of its modules. Module 1 decision-making steps were largely supported as was the definition of a sustainable utility in Module 2. Support was also achieved for the use of indicators as sustainability measures in Module 4, consistent with the view that indicators are a practical vehicle for coming to grips with sustainability. However, agreement on a standardized indicator set for common use by utilities was not reached. More detailed feedback established that most utility and agency participants found SUST very useful in making sustainability both meaningful and operational for a water utility, with the definition ranked the most critical of the SUST modules. More than half the participating regulatory agencies thought SUST represented a better approach to managing sustainability than current methods, and would support its use by utilities, while the remainder was unsure. Further, consistent with the literature, participants believed that, to maintain validity, an indicator set needs to be developed following agreement on the definition of sustainability, and cannot be chosen from a set such as the Global Reporting Initiative set without such a framework. SUST may be able to produce a standardized indicator set which improves existing regulator indicators as well as incorporating new contributions, avoiding duplication of reporting effort. Such an outcome could improve affordability of sustainability reporting by water utilities and merits further research. Some evidence indicates that SUST may be useful as a cultural change tool as, via a team learning effort, it caused a redefinition of the core business of a water utility to incorporate sustainability.

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Created: Fri, 21 Nov 2008, 14:50:55 EST