It’s undeniable that water is the cornerstone of people’s lives, underpinning the liveability of their communities. It maintains health, grows food, manages the environment and creates jobs, but population and economic growth are pushing the limits of the world’s finite water resources. Melbourne’s population is tipped to double within 15 years and the availability of water from traditional sources is a quickly diminishing possibility.
In Melbourne, Yarra Valley Water, one of Australia’s largest water utilities, services the city’s eastern and northern suburbs. This includes managing over 20,000 kilometres of water and sewer mains and other essential infrastructure worth around A$5 billion. Nearly 600 employees service more than 1.9 million people and 50,000 businesses across the city, covering an area of 4,000 square kilometres each day, providing clean water and whisking their sewage away.
Steering the company is Pat McCafferty, the Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water since 2014. While many C-suite executives reminisce over a career path that often twisted and turned before its current location, Pat waded into a water sector career at the bright-eyed age of 17. So, it was no surprise when Pat was appointed to the position thanks to his experience in various General Manager roles at Yarra Valley Water, his time in planning, economic regulation, finance and operations, as well as international experience in the Californian water sector. But what’s most noticeable about Pat isn’t his CV. Instead, it’s his understanding that Yarra Valley Water holds a phenomenally larger role in people’s lives than they will ever realise, and his determination to utilise it for the good.
In May 2017, Yarra Valley Water became the first utility to commission a dedicated waste-to-energy facility that processes commercial food waste into clean, renewable energy. Waste producers, such as markets or food manufacturers, deliver the equivalent of 150 tonnes of commercial food waste each day to the facility.
The waste would normally go to landfill, but with an anaerobic digestion process, which is what’s used for sewage management and treatment, Yarra Valley Water can create biogas from food waste and then convert it to renewable energy. This method reduces greenhouse gases, landfill waste and overall energy costs. It’s just one of the programs that demonstrates the company’s deep commitment to sustainability. Yarra Valley Water also removes and treats sewage at 10 regional plants, where water can be recycled for homes, sports fields and public spaces.
“We’ve mandated recycled water for more than 100,000 homes and we’re currently setting up the infrastructure,” shares Pat. “That’s a population the size of Canberra that will have access to recycled water for toilets, garden use and more. We also aim to become self-sufficient on the energy front with solar installations at many of our sites and further waste to energy initiatives.”
Yarra Valley Water is setting a new standard for utilities’ impact on domestic violence. The support available includes:
- All Customer Contact Centre staff are trained in domestic violence awareness.
- A specially trained Customer Support team to manage customers at risk due to family violence.
- All employees undergo training on recognising the signs of family violence and how to respond and support customers appropriately.
- All managers are trained to recognise the signs of family violence and how to respond appropriately.
- All employees can access paid family violence leave, in line with the Victorian public sector.
Adopting a global outlook, Yarra Valley Water was also the first water utility to sign up to the UN Global Compact – the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative – and commit to ensuring its strategies and policies align with the compact’s principles, covering human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption. It commits Yarra Valley Water to advancing towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include “ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”, and to publicly report on its progress.
“The UN sustainable development goals are often considered to be futureproofing, because they define what a sustainable planet should look like, from an economic, social and environmental perspective. So, we’re very much committed to playing a role in making a difference – to be effective and make an impact.”
Pat credits culture as the main enabler of Yarra Valley Water’s forward-thinking achievements, with a sustained focus over many years on building a constructive and high-performing culture. This culminated with it being recognised as one of Australia’s best employers by AON Hewitt in 2017, with an employee engagement score of 83% – a very high score by national standards and particularly impressive for a government-owned entity.
So it’s no surprise that Pat defines Yarra Valley Water as a utility that understands its responsibility to focus on the community it serves. He says there is a dire need to take leadership and be the change in every area that it touches. “Because if we don’t, who will?” This is also why Pat empathises with customers who struggle to pay their utility bills, which could be due to a change in circumstances, sudden unemployment, mental health issues, and so on. And so, the Thriving Communities Partnership (TCP) was born, a cross-sector collaboration with the goal that everybody has fair access to the modern essential services they need to thrive in contemporary Australia: including utilities, financial services, telecommunications and energy.
The TCP aims to build more resilient communities and businesses, collaboratively elevating support for people who need access to essential services across Australia. “That was something that started at Yarra Valley Water because of the journey we’d been on, and we’ve now been able to engage with others. We’re ecstatic that this partnership now has a life of its own,” says Pat.
And it’s not just the environment and financially vulnerable customers that Pat and his company care for. The Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria) found that providers of essential services, like Yarra Valley Water, have a crucial role in this space because perpetrators can use utility accounts to threaten their victims, through withholding payments, using bills to find addresses, and so on. The company has actively trained its staff to deal with such cases in their customer accounts.
“We want our customers to know their privacy is protected, and they will be listened to so they do not have to repeat their story each time they call. This is a widespread community issue, and we know we also need to support our own people, which is why extensive training is being provided, along with leave if needed. We will continue to work closely with our community agencies and financial counselling partners to develop appropriate support for customers and staff members experiencing family violence,” adds Pat.
“It’s about purposeful leadership and recognising that we’re part of an ecosystem and rely on so many others to achieve outcomes. And understanding that working in a collaborative and powerful way with all parts of the ecosystem will deliver the changes and results that we need as a community.”