Adapting to the ripple effect of challenges

Posted 22 Apr

MOD. at UniSA

Words by Walter Marsh.

Water has always been a precious commodity in Australia. For water engineer and lawyer Danielle Fopp, adapting to the challenges of urbanisation, population growth and climate change is an uphill battle that demands new approaches and solutions.

“I’ve always been a bit of a water baby,” Danielle explains. “Since I was little I have loved swimming and going down the beach, so I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with it.”

That childhood affinity has gained new depth in adulthood, as Danielle uses her legal and engineering training to help navigate the complex and evolving ways that water and humanity cross paths.

“I have a much better understanding of how complicated water flow is now — I used to think it was just a matter of gravity, water goes downhill,” she laughs. “But there is a lot of planning that I had absolutely no appreciation of while growing up — all of the infrastructure that is underneath the city, and how much effort actually goes into managing stormwater, sewage, and drinking water. Not to mention managing their respective treatment plans.”

In recent years the growing impacts of population density, urbanisation and climate change have forced water infrastructure and policymakers to adapt rapidly.

“One of the biggest factors influencing water infrastructure is population growth,” she says. “A lot of these infrastructure systems, and the policies in place, were designed when we were on larger blocks of land.  Stormwater runoff wasn’t such an issue because we had acres and acres of farmland soaking up excess water after a big rainfall event.”

As humanity’s urban footprint grows denser and more built-up, the more shallow and fleeting our water catchments become. In turn, the unimpeded flow of stormwater across urban areas makes the divide between our man-made world and marine ecosystems more permeable, as plastics, chemicals and other detritus are flushed away.

“Historically, you had one house with one family per block, and blocks were traditionally much larger than those that are available today. We have also seen an increase in multi-storey developments such as town houses and apartment blocks, with a corresponding decrease in green space. This leads to increased volumes of stormwater runoff requiring management due to all of the impervious surfaces.”

Recent news headlines illustrate how poor water management can create unexpected ripple effects, from the mass fish deaths in river systems starved of environmental flow by upstream irrigators, to remote communities whose reliance on groundwater is imperilled by contamination and drought. 

“Climate change is the other big one influencing our water systems,” she says, “and on top of that, contaminants of emerging concern have come to the forefront of people’s minds in recent times. For example, recently there has been a spike in interest in wastewater due to the detection of COVID virus fragments in the system. 

“Through research we are uncovering the potential nasties that are in some of our water systems, and the damage that they have the ability to inflict if not properly addressed. However we are in a fortunate position that scientists and researchers are working hard to uncover more of what we don’t know about what is in our water systems, and how to treat them.”

Meeting such new and unforeseen challenges as they arise has precipitated greater crossover between once-separate lines of technical and policymaking expertise.

“Traditionally, water policy has been purely the realm of legal policy makers – that was when the water cycle was viewed more one-dimensionally,” she explains. “Recently, there has been a clear need to provide a multi-disciplinary perspective to the picture — policy is no longer a few people sitting in a board room discussing legislation. We are seeing an increase in scientists and engineers being involved in the process to help influence key outcomes and strategic direction. 

“A multidisciplinary approach highlights the unique point of view and skill set each discipline can bring to help solve complex issues. I recently went to a conference where someone actually suggested getting artists involved in the process because they have a tendency to approach solving problems differently to the traditional disciplines!

“My engineering background provides me with a great practical understanding and on-the-ground experience to understand these key issues, while my legal experience allows me to approach legislative solutions from a practical perspective. There are limitations to the depth and breadth of solutions that policy alone can provide, and we need to work hard to maximise the benefits of policy for our environment and health.”

One particularly important, and often-polarising area, is recycled water and how it is incorporated into peoples’ lives, something Danielle hopes to address through her PhD research.

Adopting a more multidisciplinary approach early might help us meet the challenges of adaptation, particularly when the potential for problems down the track — or the waterway — carry such consequence.

“Clean water is one of those things we just cannot live without,” she says, “unfortunately we tend to only address environmental challenges in a reactive manner, once something goes wrong, or when an event gains traction with the public from featuring on the news; rather than adopting a proactive approach along the way.”

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