Call to arms for water tech: help defuse the “weather bomb”
Utilities Water storage Europe

Call to arms for water tech: help defuse the “weather bomb”

Thursday, 27 February 2020

The need for collaboration and resilience

A ‘call to arms’ to the water technology sector to help tackle the climate emergency could not have been delivered at a more apt time.

The country was battered by Storms Ciara and Dennis in quick succession, with 97mph winds and a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours causing widespread flooding, affecting thousands of properties.

With scientists warning current flood defence plans are inadequate, regulator the Environment Agency (EA) has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks to help “protect lives and properties”.

Speaking at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit, Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, issued the call for water professionals to “play a central part in helping to design a more resilient future”.

He said: “If we are to tackle the climate emergency successfully we need the willingness to think differently: you can help. We will, for example, need technology that has not yet been invented, like building materials, water pumps and vehicles that don't rely on carbon: the solution may be somewhere in this room.”

Avoiding the ‘Jaws of Death’

The speech followed one of the wettest winters on record in the country, meaning torrential downpours from Storm Dennis fell on land that was already saturated and rivers already full.

As a result, it became harder for EA teams to model and predict the effects on water levels – critical to send out warnings and the flood defences we need to operate, Bevan added.

Call to arms for water tech: help defuse the “weather bomb”

The chief executive also addressed the “flipside of flooding”, when water demand exceeds supply, which he termed the “Jaws of Death”, calling for innovators, investors and partners to come together.

Bevan said that between 2015-2021, £2.6 billion will be invested to build new flood defences that will better protect 300,000 properties, and more than £1 billion to maintain existing defences.

Of that £2.6 billion, 55 per cent is going to reduce flood risk from rivers, and 45 per cent is reducing risk on the coast.

Adding stress to stressed water supplies

The theme of “resilience” was apparent throughout the Summit, linking panel discussions between utility CEOs, consulting engineers, investors and start-ups.

Impacts of climate change were clearly affecting organisations, cities and countries in different ways.

Mads Leth, CEO of Danish water utility VCS Denmark, referenced the challenge of heavy rainfall causing groundwater levels to rise and the need to prevent infiltration from groundwater.

Meanwhile, Muminu Badmus, CEO of Lagos Water Corporation in Nigeria, commented on climatic changes driving people to the city.

An estimated 1000 people are said to arrive in the Nigerian capital city every minute, putting additional stress on an already stressed water system.

To put this into perspective, out of 23 million people, water supply can only meet the demand of seven million.

Monitoring the flow of people to help build resilience was also referenced by Matt Ellis, climate resilience officer of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

He added that to bring the financial community into the collaboration, there is a "real need for packages and pipelines of projects that are attractive to investors".

Defining resilience in water

Anusha Shah, director of resilient cities at Arcadis, said: "A resilient city is one which has the systems and approaches along with an inherent flexibility such that it can return to a better state than it was before the event".

Call to arms for water tech: help defuse the “weather bomb”

“If there is a perfect storm, are we equipped?” she asked the audience. Calling for collaboration, Shah said: “We need engineers to work with artists; politicians to work with activists.”

Mark Fletcher, global water business leader at Arup UK, defined resilience as “the ability of systems to survive, thrive and adapt during challenging times”.

He referenced the City Wide Resilience Approach (CWRA), produced in association with the Rockefeller Foundation, in which Miami and Cape Town were the first two cities to commit.

“When agencies work together they’re not in siloes throwing stones at each other but creating a multi-agency approach,” he said.

Call to arms for water tech: help defuse the “weather bomb”

Gordon Reid, general manager of the Zero Emissions programme at Scottish Water, said that resilience should apply to "remote communities", as well as "smart cities".

Defining resilience for wastewater treatment, he said: “Resilience is the ability for existing infrastructure to treat changing influent during changing times, including drier spells”.

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