Launching an Australian Telewater Network for international development

Since early March, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) has been identifying and developing a series of responses to assist the Australian Government to support developing countries prepare, respond and recover from COVID-19.

One such response was to establish a platform to deploy Australian water expertise remotely in response to the growing demand from developing countries to address emerging COVID-19-related needs while international travel and social distancing restrictions are in place.

In response, AWP recently launched the Australian Telewater Network — a web-based initiative aimed at providing increased access to Australian water resources advice, knowledge and tools at the request of developing countries. This online facility will both enhance the preparedness, response and recovery of affected countries from COVID-19, and strengthen communications and collaborations with and between more remote countries and regions where travel is already a challenge.

Based on the telehealth concept, Telewater will rely on information and communications technologies (ICTs) to enable knowledge sharing across geographic, time, social and cultural barriers. It will also help to support the delivery of AWP activities in-country, as well as webinars and training programs in place of more traditional study tours.

The approaches and lessons in managing COVID-19 risks by Australian water utilities are in high demand by their twin utilities in Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and more broadly across the Indo-Pacific region. In response to this demand, Telewater is being piloted in Indonesia and the Pacific region with a focus on supporting the water utility sector. It is being implemented by the Australian Water Association (AWA) in Indonesia and the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association (PWWA), with HunterH2O, in the Pacific.

Telewater is structured as a series of knowledge hubs. AWA has launched its online hub which includes COVID-19 practical guidance notes and response tool, FAQs, and international webinars. These webinars will be hosted by Australian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indonesian water utility representatives to share knowledge and experiences.

As one of the first Telewater resources, a COVID-19 fact sheet for water utilities and peak water associations has been published in English, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indonesian languages (all available through AWA’s online hub). AWA is working with those peak water associations in-country to disseminate these resources to hundreds of their member utilities, in turn supporting millions of metro and regional water users.

The PWWA is currently developing their online platform to incorporate a forum, chat room and teleconferencing facilities which will enable members from 30 utilities across 24 countries — including PWWA Young Water Professionals — to connect and engage in a more facilitated setting to address emerging COVID-19 related needs for the Pacific Island communities.

PWWA CEO Lusia Sef-Leau says, “the Pacific Water and Wastewater Association recognises the critical importance of maintaining water supplies in the Pacific as a key way to help prevent transmission of COVID-19 in the region. It is important we help our member utilities prepare for outbreaks through enabling sharing of experiences and resources across the region.”

The Telewater pilots are part of the broader water utility response being supported by AWP. Based on their success, AWP plans to continue supporting Telewater as a more widely accessible mechanism to keep water practitioners, communities and cultures connected to aid sustainable water use and management. Telewater will provide access to experts with specialist skills in WASH, disaster risk management and recovery, water supply and treatment, wastewater treatment and management, water microbiology and epidemiology; and potentially in the longer term water-energy-food security, water infrastructure and water governance.

“Telewater is an innovation that is expected to have hugely beneficial application in the short-term, as well as beyond the COVID-19 pandemic phase,” says Prof Nick Schofield, AWP CEO.

No doubt at a time of unprecedented water, health and travel-related challenges, Telewater will deliver significant development outcomes across the Indo-Pacific region and have lasting benefits beyond COVID-19, especially in regions like the Pacific which are naturally constrained by travel challenges. Likely it will also create easier opportunities to share lessons learned across different sectors and countries.

Feature image: 3D rendering of planet Earth covered with a complex luminous network connecting Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific (credit: Adobe Stock / Anton Balazh)
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