Founder of Our Future Water and Author of Urban Water Security, Robert Brears discusses the growing water scarcity issues in the UK and what water companies can do to tackle the issue.
Across the UK, climate change, population growth, and land-use change will likely result in surface flows and groundwater levels decreasing over time. Drastic climatic extremes will result in water scarcity becoming more frequent in less obvious areas, such as parts of Northern England, while traditionally drier areas, such as the South of England, will experience more severe storms in between long dry spells. The likelihood is a future where water shortages occur in some areas while at the same time flooding occurs in others.
The National Infrastructure Commission has reported that if the industry does not improve infrastructure and water efficiency, there is a risk of water scarcity impacting the livelihoods and well-being of people, businesses, farmers, the environment, and nature. Large-scale investment in green infrastructure is required to not only manage climatic extremes but also meet environmental targets at a lower cost than traditional grey infrastructure, all the while enhancing the liveability of cities and restoring the natural environment.
Improving resilience is important as climatic extremes will make traditional planning difficult, with water companies having to plan for too little and too much water at various times as the century progresses.
What can water companies do?
A key aspect of improving resilience, which Ofwat’s determinations focuses on, is reducing leakage: three billion litres of water a day is lost through leakage, which is the equivalent water use of 20 million people. By reducing leakage, there will be increased water availability, lower operational costs for water companies, and greater protection of water resources from less contamination. For example, Severn Trent is detecting leaks using satellite technology, Anglian Water is examining how fibre optics can be used to detect leaks in real-time, and Yorkshire Water is trialling the use of technology to analyse pressure transients at various sample points to help reduce interruption to customer supply.
On the other end of the scale, it is vital for water companies to prepare and plan for too much water. Excessive flooding results in deteriorating water quality and subsequent water restrictions. With just over 1% of government infrastructure spending in England going towards flood defences, the allocation of funding towards flood protection will further enhance resilience. Each region will have its unique challenges regarding climatic and non-climatic trends, and it is important, as Ofwat’s determinations states, that water companies work together and share best practices on enhancing resilience.
On a whole, we need a greater emphasis on demand management to better develop a water-conscious society. For water resource management to be successful there needs to be greater use of financial and non-financial incentives for customers to conserve water and enhance efficiency. For instance, subsidies and grants can be used to encourage residential users to purchase a range of water-efficient devices; large water users to increase industrial efficiency; and industrial and commercial users to develop on-site water reuse systems. Non-fiscal tools can be utilised to encourage water conservation and stormwater management, such as mandating water and energy benchmarking of commercial buildings with data made publicly available.
Regarding managing excess water, cities and regions are implementing charges on stormwater while offering incentives to reduce impervious surfaces and therefore offset the charges. Other locations are mandating the use of greenery while simultaneously providing building owners grants to meet these requirements. All of these fiscal tools reduce the amount of water and wastewater that requires treatment, which also reduces operational and maintenance costs, enhances resilience to climatic extremes, and preserves water for the environment.
Innovation is key
It is always going to be a challenge getting the balance right – too much of a focus on long-term investment can slow innovation and lock-in technologies that only reinforces the status quo. Currently, Ofwat is providing an innovation competition to encourage water companies to collaborate with not just their peers but other companies in their supply chains. This enables companies to push the boundaries on new technologies that reduce leakage, enhance customer satisfaction, and lower emissions in the providing of water-related services.
Examples of companies who are working to make a difference are Southern Water’s Catchment First initiative, which will involve the company working with stakeholders to create a safer, more reliable water supply by considering whole catchments.
Thames Water is aiming to enhance community resilience by proactively engaging customers to raise awareness on how their behaviour can affect the ability of the company to deliver a safe, reliable supply of water, as well as educating the next generation of customers on the need to become water-wise (achieved via school visits to their education centres as well as the deployment of a new mobile classroom that will bring to life the operational business in the classroom).
Welsh Water, as well, will make a significant contribution to reducing operational costs, carbon emissions, and water-energy nexus pressures by aiming to produce a third of its energy from the sewage it treats, solar, hydro, and wind power.
It is hoped that water companies will not only test various types of green infrastructure to reduce pollution and lower wastewater treatment costs but also explore the potential uses of wastewater in domestic and industrial activities. Already, we are seeing advances such as the use of food waste for co-digestion. The exciting part of innovative technology is that it should unlock the true value of wastewater. New technologies and partnerships need to be formed that recover resources from wastewater such as the use of sewage ash for bricks, cellulose recovery, the development of bio-plastics, and recovery of precious metals, all of which provide new revenue streams for water companies.
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About the Author
Robert Brears is the Founder of Our Future Water and Author of Urban Water Security, The Green Economy and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus as well as Blue and Green Cities. His widely published works surround issues such as water security and water resource management, following research Brears has conducted around the world, including Antarctica.