Interconnection is key to UK water scarcity challenge

The UK faces some serious challenges if it is to maintain the balance of water supplies through the 21st century. Steven Lambert, principal consultant at Isle Utilities, believes interconnection and innovation is the answer

While the global population has trebled, from around two billion to more than six billion over the past 100 years, the United Nations estimates that water consumption has, at the same time, increased six-fold. In many parts of the world the availability of fresh water resources is becoming increasingly unreliable, often with deleterious societal, health and environmental consequences.

Depleted or contaminated water resources, combined with increasing populations and competing water demands, are major factors impeding the economic growth of some countries, while tension and potential conflicts over scarce and diminishing water resources frequently cited between others. Water scarcity, combined with food shortages and insufficient energy resources, have even been referred to as a “perfect storm” by Professor John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientist, which may also potentially arise within only a few decades if not addressed.

The provision of secure, sustainable water supplies, of adequate quality and insufficient quantity, is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for many countries. It also means that the global market for water products and services, which is already worth in excess of £190bn a year according to UK Trade & Investment, is forecast to dramatically increase. It also represents a clear opportunity for innovative UK companies.

Compared with the global situation, water supplies in the UK are broadly in balance. Non-energy sector water demand is currently just under 20,000Ml/d, while available resources are around 21,000Ml/d.

Some parts of the UK, most notably the south and east of England, are water-stressed although, in comparison with some other parts of the world, there is little evidence to date of significant adverse societal impacts from water scarcity in the UK.

For example, the water sector has a response plan to drought situations, involving an escalating series of restrictions from Level 1 (hosepipe ban) to Level 4 (banning water use in non-critical infrastructure), and it is extremely uncommon for the higher level responses to be invoked. What is clear, however, is that the situation in the UK will be very different and water supplies much less secure in the future.

In part, this is because the population of the UK is set to rise, from 62m to 71m by 2031. This increase is likely to be most acute in the South-east of England, where London’s population is projected to grow from 7.6m to 8.6m by 2026.

Future pressures will not be confined to South-east England though and, while resilience in the UK water sector has increased over recent decades, population growth, as well as its demographics, will place considerable strain on current water infrastructure throughout the UK. Climate change will also have an additional and potentially even greater impact.

According to UK Climate Projections (UKCP) 09, average temperatures are already 1°C higher than they were in the 1970s, and summer temperatures could be 4°C higher still, under median scenarios, by 2080 in southern England. There may simultaneously be 40% less summer rainfall, leading to less water available for ecosystems and abstraction alike.

It has been predicted that by 2050 non-energy sector water demand will have reached 26,000Ml/d, while water availability will have fallen to 17,000Ml/d, meaning a potential shortfall of around 10,000Ml/d. Less dilution in receiving waters will necessitate low environmental loadings, made even lower if stringent European surface water quality targets are to be met. And, at the same time, the sector is being asked to meet statutory carbon reduction targets.

Adapting to climate change will be a major challenge for the water sector, and the regulated water companies will not be able to achieve it alone. It is also clear from the scale of the challenge that it will be insufficient to simply apply current capital and carbon intensive technologies more effectively.

The sector will need to think and act differently, and develop and adopt new ways of doing things. A greater interconnection of the supply network and transfer of water across regions, abstraction licence reforms coupled with demand side water conservation measures will all contribute to addressing the predicted supply-demand imbalance. New research and innovation will also play a pivotal role.

Historically, the application of innovative technologies, processes and ideas has delivered significant benefits and improvements to the UK water sector. Since privatisation, however, there appears to have been a decrease in emphasis in England and Wales and a commensurate reduction in research and development (R&D) expenditure.

According to the Cave review, per annum R&D expenditure of the water companies has fallen, in real terms, from around £45m in the early 1990s to £18m in 2009. R&D expenditure generally for the sector was considered to be low, and largely driven by a regulatory framework that encouraged companies to manage their assets to maintain serviceability and deliver operational efficiencies, while doing little to make companies less risk-adverse or incentivise the development and adoption of innovation.

What R&D activities and improvements were being made were incremental rather than the kind of step-change innovation required for future efficiency gains, according to the Council for Science & Technology, and the levels insufficient to meet the sectors most pressing challenges. In order to understand the R&D requirements, and range and magnitude of opportunities for water-related innovation, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) undertook a wide ranging investigation during 2009 and 2010, engaging all parts of the water sector. The TSB is the UK’s national innovation agency, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) but which operates at arm’s length of government to stimulate and support business-led innovation, and thereby accelerate economic growth.

The findings of their investigation are summarised in an Interim Strategic Assessment, which concluded that, while the conditions for an innovation platform were not currently met in the UK, there were clear innovation opportunities in water for UK businesses, particularly in the export market and for companies in the supply chain. As much of the expertise in the sector is now out-placed by the water companies, the consultants, contractors and supply chain are increasingly critical to its success. As a consequence, and as outlined in the water white paper, Water for Life, the TSB will attempt to stimulate innovation in the industry in March 2012 by launching a £4m challenge-led competition. The aim of the competition, which will be co-funded by the Department for Environment & Rural Affairs (Defra), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will be to help UK companies within the supply chain improve their access to global water markets by investing in step-change solutions to overseas and future UK water security challenges.

A step-change is defined as being a product, process, service or business model with the potential to save or make available for use 1,000Ml/d water from the blue water cycle within a defined global market. Blue water is fresh water originating from surface and groundwater sources, abstracted for municipal, industrial or agricultural purposes. The competition opens on March 19.

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