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Memories and reflections: the MIWM Final Project experience

International WaterCentre Project Officer, Pablo Orams reflects on experience completing his Master of Integrated Water Management Final Project on Water Sensitive Urban Design.
Memories and reflections: the MIWM Final Project experience

Pablo reflects on how the MIWM Final Project prepares students to proactively drive positive change in water management

As part of our Master of Integrated Water Management (MIWM), students are required to undertake a semester-long, self-directed research project, either as a personal enterprise or in the form of an organisational placement (with an NGO, research institution, industry organisation, consultant, NRM organisation, etc.). The aim is to investigate particular complex water issues, using the newly gained integrated water management (IWM) knowledge and skills acquired through participation in the program. This is students’ ‘last hurrah’, their final mission as an MIWM champion. To succeed they need to demonstrate individual inquiry and the ability to plan, execute and deliver a high quality submission that illustrates skills, knowledge and critical assessment of contemporary aspects of IWM in both theory and practice.

Selecting my final project

As a former MIWM student, my ‘last hurrah’ was in early 2013. The location: a rather small but rapidly growing, suburbia-like coastal town named Casuarina, in the Tweed Shire, far-north New South Wales (with great surf and a few sharks, but that’s another story). The mission: investigate the bottlenecks that hinder the adoption of urban green infrastructure (i.e. Water Sensitive Urban Design - WSUD) in the area, and identify opportunities for improvement that could be embraced to advance its implementation.

The reasons why and how this experience materialised were various. Simply put, it was a matter of passion and a bit of luck. I have a passion for water management in the urban context, and my love for the ocean and surfing has always been with me. These two dimensions of my life suddenly matched perfectly after meeting Tom Alletson, a surfer, former MIWM student and the Waterways Program Leader at the Tweed Shire Council (TSC). A couple of emails and some conversations later, Tom took the role as my placement supervisor, with Brian McIntosh (IWC Education Director) providing academic supervision, and I moved to Casuarina, my new headquarters. We collaboratively defined the project scope so it provided me with my desired learning experience, but also so it provided TSC with a piece of knowledge relevant to their urban water management planning efforts. The title of this work was Water Sensitive Urban Design in the Tweed: An analysis of the barriers and potential improvement opportunities for WSUD incorporation in the Tweed Shire Area.

What was the project about?

The following lines give an overview of the context, process and findings of this final project.

The Tweed Shire has experienced high rates of population growth (34% in the 1996-2011 period, and 46% forecasted for the 2011-2031 period). At the same time, agriculture, cattle grazing and urban land uses have significantly modified the catchment. This situation, combined with environmental factors such as strong seasonal variability and high natural runoff rates, have led the Tweed to face challenging water problems, including forecasted insufficient water supply availability and decreased river and estuarine health.

In an effort to address these issues, the TSC took a series of actions, most of them under the umbrella of its Integrated Water Cycle Management (IWCM) Strategy, implemented in 2006.

An objective of the IWCM Strategy was to incorporate WSUD practices in the Tweed. WSUD is an approach to the planning and design of urban environments that supports healthy ecosystems, lifestyles and livelihoods through smart management of the urban water cycle. Its principles aim to sustainably manage stormwater, water supply and wastewater issues in urban environments. Its application is materialised as the integration into urban areas of different technologies such as vegetated swales, bio-retention systems, wetlands, rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling, among others.

Important outcomes have been achieved through the IWCM Strategy, such as the reduction of residential water demand (from 247 L/p/d in 2000 to 182 L/p/d in 2011). After an independent review of the IWCM Strategy in 2012 however, it was concluded that WSUD objectives were not yet met, and its application to urban development in the area remained vague. From a personal point of view, most sites I inspected (with a few of exceptions such as Casuarina Beach and Salt Villages) displayed end-of-pipe, overgrown and fenced stormwater management features, poorly integrated in their surrounding urban environment.

Image 1: Fenced wetland (personal photo archives)

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Consequently, this project carried out a research process to understand the barriers that were hindering the adoption of WSUD practices in the area. Investigation methods included an extensive literature review, observation of already implement WSUD assets, and a stakeholder engagement process targeting key people involved in the management of Tweed´s urban water issues (from local and state government, developers, consultants and the broader community). Findings revealed a series of constraints to WSUD incorporation, which were categorised as economic, physical, organisational, policy-related, political and educational barriers. A summary of findings is in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Summary of barriers that hinder the development of WSUD in the Tweed

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After understanding these barriers, I proceeded to translate them into improvement opportunities. Figure 2 below conceptualises a series of actions that could be put in place to overcome the identified barriers, and support and enable the adoption of sound WSUD in the Tweed. This included increases in funding, implementing supportive policies, changing institutional structures, potentiating community education, improving interaction between stakeholders, and allowing a participatory management of WSUD. These may translate into benefits back to stakeholders, such as improved liveability for the community and market opportunities for developers. It is important to mention that this research didn’t explore the practicalities of implementing the proposed actions.

Figure 2: Improvement opportunities for WSUD in the Tweed

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The outcomes of the research process were then given to TSC with the hope they could contribute to informing their decision making in the future.

Final thoughts

As an enthusiastic student, you hope that the effort and time invested in your Final Project ultimately adds to the industry’s pool of evidence and knowledge, and even better if it gets published! In the case of my final project, I think that the identified barriers and proposed improvement opportunities may be no secret if you ask other experts in the field of urban water management and WSUD, and my results may resonate with what other people have found in other urban environments across Australia.

There is voluminous research that explores the adoption of WSUD and other urban water management approaches. I think the Final Project experience however, contributes more to the industry than just evidence and knowledge. It is a test of mental (and physical, I should say) endurance, persistence and resilience. It can break the nerves of the toughest emotionally-stable person. It is the MIWM military-style obstacle course, the mud-run that our aspiring water leaders go through to be prepared for their professional endeavours ahead. Water is gaining more and more attention worldwide, and the current and future challenges around its sustainable management are nothing less than daunting. The ones who hold this responsibility on their backs, people like our students, like me, like you, need to keep on their game in order to proactively drive positive change in the industry. For me, the MIWM Final Project helped me in this quest.


Thank you to the people who supported me during the Final Project experience, Tom Alletson and the Tweed Shire Council, Brian McIntosh (formerly my teacher and Final Project supervisor…now my boss), the IWC education team, and the MIWM students who shared this experience with me.


Pablo Orams
Project Officer
Phone +61 7 3028 7600

Photos from the field

Murwillumbah West

Residential development of 77.2ha housing 2,840 people, with associated recreational and community/educational facilities. WSUD representative features include two wetlands in combination with bioretention and GPT systems.

Image 2 & 3: Murwillumbah West (Personal photo archives)

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Casuarina Beach

The Casuarina Beach Coastal area is one of the most significant remaining coastal sites zoned for substantial development in New South Wales. It is estimated to host approximately 6,000 residents in an area of 180ha. Its drainage and water quality management approaches represent one of the best examples of WSUD application in the Tweed. It combines roof water infiltration, trash racks, GPT´s and infiltration basins, all integrated in a treatment train which drains into vegetated swale running the length of the development along the eastern boundary, providing bio-retention benefits and allowing infiltration through the sandy soil.

Image 4, 5 & 6: Casuarina Beach (Personal photo archives)

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Seabreeze Estate

Located in Pottsville, it is planned to host a population of 1,700 people. It features four artificial wetlands, as well as vegetated swales. It was indicated during the site selection process that wetlands are overgrown, but their treatment performance has not been compromised.

Image 7, 8 & 9: Seabreeze Estate (Personal photo archives)

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Salt Village

This development has an area of approximately 73.8ha and a frontage of 1,100m to the beach. It comprises residential lots, resort rooms, medium density dwellings, commercial and retail areas, together with approximately 16ha of parklands and extensive cycleway/walkway networks. It features similar technologies to the ones applied in Casuarina Beach.

Image 10 & 11: Salt Village (Personal photo archives)

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