Climate change and the future of the water environment

Following a year when many of the water industry's achievements were drowned under critical headlines about drought order applications, high profile hosepipe bans and consumer concern over leakage rates, the industry needs to renew its efforts to set the agenda for a more sustainable water environment, writes Catherine Iredale.

It is clear that global political pressure and action is now focused on addressing both the causes and effects of global climate change. The importance of this issue for the water and wastewater industry cannot be overstated.

The industry is on the front line and has some key challenges to address and an important role to play in helping society as a whole meet its obligations.

Climate change is already affecting the water industry throughout its value chain from availability of resources and infrastructure through operations and demand to finances.

Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK, a representative body for the licensed water and wastewater operators in the UK, suggested: “Water and wastewater services will become unsustainable if we do not take full account of climate change effects in our planning and investment.”

The scale of the challenge faced by the UK and other developed countries can be clearly understood by reviewing the basics of our water usage today. Less than one per cent of the world’s freshwater supply is readily available for human use and of all the water used globally, 70 per cent is for agriculture, 20 per cent for industry and about 10 per cent for domestic use.

In the UK, each person uses around 150 litres of water each day from water company supplies. However, this figure is only a tiny proportion when compared with the amount of water that is embedded in our lifestyles and the goods and services consumed. On this basis the average UK resident uses over 3000 litres per day.

“That is why water efficiency throughout every part of the water cycle is essential at the local and global scale”, says Pamela Taylor. “At the very least, we must accept this.”

An additional challenge facing the sector is the dichotomy created by the need to maintain water quality standards at times of low river flow. It is anticipated that climate change may lead to increased instances of lower flows, which could reduce the dilution of wastewater thereby affecting water quality.

To meet European water quality standards at these times, additional treatment could be required. Such treatment is energy intensive, which seems a contradictory demand at a time when society as a whole is under pressure to reduce energy usage as a method of reducing CO2 emissions – seen as one of the main causes of climate change. One possible solution is to maximise the use of energy from renewable sources, such as the positioning of wind turbines at treatment stations to generate a proportion of the energy required.

The solution is to ensure our thinking on the environment is truly ‘joined-up’ – leading to integrated policies.

“When making water and climate change legislation we need to recognise the possible conflict between ever higher environmental standards and the impact on the climate of using more energy to meet these standards,” continues Pamela Taylor. “There is only one environment, we must have one policy.”

She added: “We must ask ourselves about the net impact on the environment of today’s policy decisions. This is the difficult question behind ensuring an integrated approach.”

Beyond the legislative elements there are also the financial implications of climate change for the water sector. While the Stern report concluded there is a strong economic case for action now, the key question remains; will we (as consumers) be willing to pay for the measures required?

These measures fall into two broad categories: those designed to mitigate against the effects of global climate change – such as increase flood protection – and those designed to help us adapt our extraction, supply and usage. To form an effective strategy, the mitigation actions and adaptation measures must be devised in harmony as many are complementary.

The key to adaptation is the requirement to be much more efficient in our use of water. As Pamela Taylor comments: “This is not just an issue for the end user. As an industry we must look at means of making the most of water at every stage that it is provided, in households, industry, agriculture and food production.”

One of the few certainties of climate change is that our climate is becoming more uncertain, this makes planning, prediction and investment difficult. The industry must adapt its capacity and be flexible enough to deal with this increased uncertainty.

To create an effective and sustainable water environment for future generations, the water and wastewater industry cannot meet all the challenges alone. There are clear interactions with other sectors such as agriculture manufacturing, process industry, pharmaceutical, biosciences and construction.

Communication will continue to be vital between all parties to ensure effective shared responsibility at operational, policy and implementation level.

The water industry clearly has a lead role to play in setting the agenda for change, and must be open and forthright in its communication with all stakeholders to make sure they are engaged.

The actions of consumers will be key to success. Without renewed efforts to raise awareness of the issues, their long-term implications and the actions which are being taken, the industry runs the risk of further negative headlines impacting on its reputation.

Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK is presenting a session on ‘Working in Partnership with Industry, Regulators and Government for Sustainable Water Policies’ on Tuesday 1 May at the International Water and Effluent (IWEX) event which takes place at the NEC in Birmingham.

The IWEX event is part of Sustainabilitylive! – the UK’s largest forum for excellence and innovation for those working in the water, environment, energy and land sectors. For the latest news on exhibitors, the features programme and to register for free attendance, please visit: or call +44 (0) 870 443 6089.

For more information on Water UK and its activities visit

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie