Time to take stock

Summer's floods highlighted the vulnerability of our water infrastructure. Sally Nash asks what lessons will be learnt.

In the wake of the unprecedented flooding this summer, Severn Trent Water (STW) has pledged to carry out a review in a bid to “learn any appropriate lessons”.

One of those lessons will undoubtedly be whether the utility could have done anything more – or differently – to prevent the breakdown in water supply when Mythe WTW, near Tewkesbury, was forced out of action.

STW will also be assessing whether it can protect water supply in the event of future extreme flooding.

The government has already announced an inquiry into the flooding. Sir Michael Pitt will lead the Lessons Learned Review, which will look at a wide variety of issues, including the vulnerability of critical infrastructure and what improvements might be made.

STW, responsible for Mythe, was quick to announce its own review. Chief executive Tony Wray says it was “not possible today to anticipate what longer-term changes, costs or investments may be required in Severn Trent Water’s operations or networks that may arise from these inquiry conclusions. We will work closely with Ofwat and other regulatory agencies to ensure a proper response to these conclusions.”

Wray stresses that the utility was faced with a “completely unprecedented event that has “rewritten the records of flooding in the UK”. He believes that the dangers stemmed from having to deal with “20th century problems using 19th century infrastructure”.

The utility also claims that it moved quickly from the start of the incident, purchasing and installing additional emergency flood protection systems at Mythe and putting in place emergency generators and other equipment as part of an enhanced resilience plan.

Risk management

The Mythe Treatment Works is understood to have been protected specifically to deal with the serious flooding in 1947. On paper the works was not considered vulnerable to flooding.

This highlights that other companies might do well to look again at the works in their own regions. There are rather a lot of them – Water UK’s published figure for 2004 was 2,500 WTWs in the UK, while a recent BBC Panorama investigation suggested there could be around 3,000 water and power plants “built in areas with a severe risk of flooding”.

On the programme, reporter Kate Silverton, talking to Ian Cluckie, professor of hydrology and water management at Bristol University, said that water plants were “not sufficiently defended”.

This is a charge that has been levelled at Severn Trent by the Consumer Council for Water, which argues that utilities have under-invested in infrastructure. It says that the water industry as a whole has failed to meet regulator Ofwat’s targets for infrastructural investment of £4.3B for 2006.

The actual amount invested in repairs and upgrades was closer to £3.4B.

“Have the water companies invested wisely in their networks to minimise the disruption caused by flooding incidents and the resilience of plant and, if more investment is required, what proportion should be borne by shareholders and, if any, by customers?” the council has asked.

A recent comment piece in Gloucestershire paper The Citizen echoed this cry. The editorial highlighted the fact that, by its own admission, STW has no contingency plans should Mythe go down through flooding.

The editorial argued that flying over the plant by helicopter, it was “very clear that this facility needs far more protection to keep water out as it would always be in danger of flooding, being sited so near the river”.

A spokesman for Water UK says: “Clearly, all companies are looking at assessing their infrastructure, particularly if is located near to rivers which are where, logically, works of this kind are placed.”

Companies will look at their risk-management strategies and risk profiles in the light of recent events in a bid to protect their assets, adds the spokesman.

He stresses that the flooding was “a very unusual event which would have overwhelmed anything”. And he says that if there are lessons to be learnt then they will be applied to both new facilities and existing assets.

Critical sites

Water UK is currently stocktaking a lessons learnt file from this exceptional natural disaster. It has identified a range of potential issues that need to be looked into, including reviewing the resilience of infrastructure at risk of flooding and coastal realignment.

So what about other water utilities? A spokeswoman for Anglian Water says that the utility’s existing contingency plans encompass issues such as security, flooding and vandalism, and these are reviewed regularly. Anglian Water has identified the critical sites in the area and they are subject to ongoing risk assessment, adds the spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, United Utilities says it has already carried out flood defence work at its electricity substation at Carlisle, which was affected by the floods in January 2005. Since then, the company has used Environment Agency data to assess the flood risk at all of its critical water, wastewater and electricity installations.

Sites have been ranked according to strategic importance and level of flood risk. Some 580 sites have been identified as at risk from flooding, at risk probability levels varying from 1:100 years to 1:1,000 years.

Any necessary flood protection work, which could cost in excess of £1B, will be included in United Utilities’ submission for the 2009 price review. If approved by regulators this work would be carried out between 2010 and 2015.

Any sites built in the future will be designed with appropriate flood protection included.

A spokesman for Bristol Water, which has been helping out STW, says: “It is very much a case of there for the grace of god… We have had some executive discussions about the issue such as the possibility of having more stand-by power generators and about assessing the risk factor of our works flooding… So it’s a matter of reviewing our contingency plans.”

In announcing the government review, prime minister Gordon Brown warned that, like every advanced industrialised country, the UK is coming to terms with the issues surrounding climate change.

The impending review will look at infrastructure: “It is pretty clear that some of the 19th century structures – we are dealing with infrastructure and where they were sited – is something we are going to review,” he said.

As for STW, the company is still coming to terms with the challenges of the recent flooding.

“The size and scale of both this incident and the response are, we believe, unprecedented in the recent history of the UK water industry,” the company says.

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