Dr Therese Flapper has shown a career-long knack for being involved in some of the country’s most important water security issues.
An ever-increasing population, paired with growing climate and rainfall variability, means that ensuring water security looms as a chief challenge for Australia, the driest inhabited continent.
Conquering this challenge requires reducing water consumption, which makes efforts like Dr Therese Flapper’s work on projects such as the Googong Integrated Water Cycle (IWC) so vital.
As GHD’s Business Group Manager from 2011 to 2015, Flapper was tasked with overseeing the creation of one of Australia’s first purpose-built, large-scale, water-efficient communities from scratch.
The brief from Queanbeyan City Council was to design and implement a recycling system for Googong Township, located on 760 ha of former grazing land 16 km south-east of Canberra. It would service 5500 homes and 16,000 people over the next 25 years.
“The project was fully funded and conceived by the developer [Canberra Investment Corporation and Mirvac], and their idea was to recycle 60 per cent of the suburb’s non-potable water and stormwater and treat their sewage,” Flapper said.
“This would reduce 60 per cent of the suburb’s water consumption.”
The Googong IWC is now in the first stages of providing fully-integrated infrastructure, which so far includes a bulk water reservoir connected to potable reservoirs and a water recycling plant that recycles waste water so it can be reused for non-potable needs, such as watering gardens and lawns and firefighting.
The most satisfying dimension of the project for Flapper, which she worked on between 2012 and 2015, was the mutual respect and rapport that evolved between the council, developers and engineers, something she had not experienced before in any other project.
“Despite the fact that there was every complexity in the project imaginable, the working relationships were wonderful; the council was being gifted the water recycling project so they were happy, and then we were getting love letters from the developers because they really respected our technical know-how and that we could make things happen,” Flapper said.
“It was a perfect marriage between EQ (emotional quotient) and IQ. I really loved it and I’ve now created something that can hopefully be a benchmark and last for more than 50 years.”
Flapper has come a long way in 30 years, starting from humble battler roots in south-west Sydney, where she was the sole member of her graduating class of 120 students in 1987 to go onto university.
“I had a really inspirational geography teacher in years 11 and 12 who spotted that I had an enquiring mind and got me to see the bigger picture,” Flapper recalled.
“Because I was interested in human impact on the environment, he encouraged me to do an environmental science degree.”
Flapper secured marks high enough to secure a place at the University of NSW, where she did a Bachelor of Science with Honours.
“Most of my peers after graduation went on to work for the government, for the Department of Environment, Land and Water or be park rangers,” she said.
“Instead I got a job at Sydney Water, working in a sewage treatment plant and really loved it. I was taken under the wing of a senior manager and began to see the connection between science and engineering.”
Unfazed by the fact that she was one of only a handful of women in her class, Flapper returned to UNSW to do a Master of Engineering Science and then a PhD.
After four years completing her PhD, in 2002 she then found a role as R&D director at Ecowise Environmental, a provider of integrated environmental, consulting, analytical, and monitoring services.
“It was a role that really worked for me at the time,” Flapper said.
“I got to see the exciting commercialisation of many research and development projects and help leverage funding for them. It wasn’t just esoteric R&D, but seeing the impact of this research on the community.”
She spent about half her time in the office and half out in the field. “I could move between boots and high heels in a single day,” she says. One trip took her to the Northern Territory to measure the quality of groundwater.
At this point, Flapper decided to push ahead with her career, and took a role in Canberra as Business Group Manager Water Environment and Transport for GHD.
“It was a broad role looking at southern NSW and ACT and most of our clients were local councils,” she said.
“Again it made me realise the real significance of what I was doing; of the application of engineering on critical infrastructure, on water supply and sewage treatment for public health and the public good.”
She managed a portfolio of more than $20 million in fees across infrastructure projects, with a capital value of more than $500 million.
The aspect of this role that Flapper enjoyed most was working on a three-continent project (US, Australia and the Philippines), which involved close interaction with a team of 30 local support staff in Manila; she made about nine fortnight-long trips to the Philippine capital over a two-year period to train and build a strong team.
“I did a lot of mentoring and engaging with them, and I made sure that they were highly integrated with the Sydney and Brisbane offices, as well as connected with the clients,” she said.
Having made the move to Arup earlier this year, Flapper is feeling very positive about the future. “I believe Arup is a very engaging and empowering organisation,” she said.
“It has a broad cross-disciplinary approach to projects and I feel that it will give me opportunities to really look at things from a different perspective.”
In her new role as both Australasia Water Skills Leader and ACT Transport and Resources Leader, Flapper is enjoying her regional outlook as well as a more finite local focus in the Canberra region at the same time.
Her regional brief will now incorporate water projects across New Zealand and South Asia, with a particular emphasis on Singapore, where Flapper has already travelled twice in the past few months since she started the job to hold discussions about upcoming projects.
It is very important, Flapper said, not to deal with clients and partners at arm’s length, operating remotely from Canberra.
Vision for water
At the local ACT level, Flapper’s role is complemented by the fact that she is also deputy chair of Consult Australia’s Canberra Regional Committee. The first challenge she faces though is that the Territory has not yet formulated a plan on its future vision for water and transport.
“We are holding a Canberra Regional Committee building forum in August, when we will have people from the ACT Government directorates, local councils and the private sector attending, and the goal is to come up with a vision that really translates into something productive,” Flapper said.
“One aspect we will look at is creating a borderless approach to infrastructure design, delivery and provision.”
Substantial water component
Flapper will continue pushing ahead with a number of projects Arup already has on the go in Canberra, including leading a consortium responsible for the engineering design of Stage 1 of the Capital Metro, a 12 km light rail from the CBD to the developing suburbs of Gungahlin in the north.
Other projects include the City to the Lake Estate Development plan, the University of Canberra and an urban rejuvenation plan for Canberra’s CBD.
“We are going to transform the heart of the city into a more liveable space, a greener space and a social space with a substantial water component,” Flapper said.
“I have a personal drive here about this project, to create something I can hang my hat on.”
Looking forward, Flapper said that Big Data is one of the biggest challenges that engineers face.
“Finding more effective ways to use Big Data will mean that we can increase productivity and efficiency. It will inform our asset productivity and the capital investment cycle.”
Restoring a national perspective on water
Water is a global issue and fundamental to human existence. That’s why Dr Therese Flapper believes that a national strategy and forward planning are critical to preserve and best utilise this invaluable resource.
The biggest issue Australia faces today, she says, is its lack of a National Water Commission to plan for future water needs and usage. The Commission oversaw water development and reform, determining how water was allocated and managed for all household, commercial, farming, and industry users.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott disbanded the Commission in 2014, removing the country’s primary mechanism for national coordination of water policy.
“This means that water security is now not on the national agenda, although 97% of the population rely on a utility for their potable water,” Flapper said.
“I think it’s just as important to have a national water policy as an economic policy.
Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension as Prime Minister last year also caused a shake-up of water, with responsibility for water policy transferring from Greg Hunt’s environment portfolio to Barnaby Joyce’s agriculture brief.
“Since there is no current drought, it seems the Minister of Agriculture thinks there is no imminent threat to water security,” Flapper said.
“This is just short-term thinking.”
However, she is not pessimistic, rather hopeful that the National Water Commission will be resurrected in some shape or form over the next few years.
“We need to have some kind of policy as we grow our cities and build new ones, to integrate water development into the whole planning process on a national level to provide sewage and drinking water for 23 million people,” she said.
“The water sector has peaks and troughs, but it can never go away, so I am sure we will make it happen. We all know we need to plan for future generations.”