Three minute insights:
The need to address climate change comes alongside potentially competing demands for investment – to prevent combined sewer overflows and protect people from contamination by ‘forever chemicals’.
Simon Robinson, global lead for water
What was the hot issue in 2022?
Climate change is a pressing challenge. Because water is so essential to daily life, the impacts of climate change on water supply cross over with water security and service to customers.
In 2022 we saw prolonged droughts resulting in shortages for users – agricultural, industrial and domestic – and stressing the natural environment. We also witnessed increasing flood risk. As our atmosphere gets warmer it holds more moisture, resulting in heavier rainstorms, while sea level rise is escalating the probability and consequence of coastal flooding. The water sector has a lot of service-critical assets in potentially vulnerable low-lying locations.
The water sector involves a lot of pumping and technological processes, so it is energy and carbon intensive. There are also substantial ‘fugitive’ emissions of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and biomethane.
We saw increased action on all fronts last year. In the UK and New Zealand, the water sector is world-leading in recognising the importance of tackling the causes and effects of climate change. Utility companies are developing the science to measure fugitive emissions more definitively. In 2022 we completed a major carbon footprinting project for New Zealand utility Watercare. And we’re seeing more UK water utilities develop and publish net-zero routemaps.
In the UK, for water companies in south and southeast England, we’ve mapped strategic resource options for increasing water security to 2050 and beyond, involving a combination of new reservoirs, inter-regional water transfers and water reuse.
For well over a decade we have worked with water utilities to assess the vulnerability of critical assets to flooding. This work is ongoing, with risk assessments informing climate adaptation strategies. In 2022 the Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment launched the Physical Climate Risk Assessment Methodology, developed by us, to inform investment in resilience. And we authored world-first guidance on the use of nature-based solutions for flood management for CIRIA, the UK construction industry research and innovation association.
Why will these issues be keeping clients awake at night?
No single utility can cut emissions to the extent required or build resilience on their own. They must collaborate with each other and with organisations in different sectors. The interconnectedness and interdependency of assets, systems, organisations, risks and opportunities presents significant organisational, cultural, behavioural and operational challenges. Unless they are overcome, the pace and scale of change required to address climate change will be difficult to achieve.
This imperative is set out in the revised international specification for carbon management in buildings and infrastructure, PAS 2080 – a ‘how to’ guide for getting to net zero that we co-authored in 2022 for launch in 2023.
The need to address climate change comes alongside other pressing challenges, with potentially competing demands for capital investment. They include increasing action to prevent the discharge of untreated stormwater and wastewater into rivers and coastal waters – a rising problem due to population growth and increased storm intensity, which increase flows in sewerage systems built before modern environmental and health standards came about.
With Watercare, the water utility for Auckland, New Zealand, we developed Safeswim on our Moata digital platform to visualise water quality risk and demonstrate the business case for several local wastewater system improvements that began construction in 2022.
And in the Philadelphia, US, and London, UK, we’re involved in two very different approaches to sewer capacity enlargement. Philadelphia’s has involved threading a large diameter tunnel through the congested city centre in multiple phases. London’s involves driving the giant interceptor Tideway Tunnel beneath the River Thames.
Worldwide we’re seeing the rise in ‘forever chemicals’ – persistent synthetic pollutants from industrial and municipal waste that bioaccumulate in plants, animals and humans with potentially devastating effects. We’re working in Camden in New Jersey, USA, on an easily replicable solution to remove PFAS chemicals from drinking water.
How can we help?
In practice it requires skilful business planning, capital delivery and asset management. Enterprise working – aligning client and supply chain with desired outcomes – and digital solutions are part of the way forward. They are features of many of our recent and current projects.
Enterprise working and digital are being employed to powerful effect by UK utility Anglian Water’s Strategic Pipeline Alliance, which is strengthening supply across the east of England with the UK’s largest current water supply project. The alliance has used our Moata Route Optimiser solution to select and refine pipeline alignments.
Moata Carbon Portal is being used on projects internationally to calculate embodied and operational emissions. It is particularly powerful during the design optioneering phase to identify carbon ‘hot spots’ and remove them.
In the UK, systems mapping was carried out for the Water Resources East and Southeast 2050 strategic regional plans.
In Bangkok, Thailand, we’ve piloted a digital flood prediction solution that provides city authorities with a decision support system to anticipate stormwater flooding and strategically mobilise defence and recovery teams.
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