Water neutrality: the next net zero carbon - Part 2.


A need for smart, holistic solutions.

In part 1 we looked at the realities of water scarcity.

Head of Policy and Strategy at NGO Waterwise, Dr Nathan Richardson has been working in water management for over 35 years, in academia, industry, consultancy – a journey that has given him a rounded perspective on water and how to value and use it wisely.

What Sir James Bevan was trying to do with his language was to shake things up and rattle us out of our complacency on water demand. Latest calculations show a shortfall of over 4,000,000,000 litres of water per day if we want secure supplies, economic growth and a healthy environment… He was spot on, I think.

Dr Nathan Richardson

The main challenge ahead for the UK, he says, is making our water system fit for the present and the future; ensuring there is sufficient water for people, business and the environment, and ensuring we are not polluting our rivers and seas. Sitting on a customer challenge group for one water company, he sees raised public awareness of water company performance as a good thing.

This isn’t just down to the companies; the regulators have a responsibility here too. The sector is going to have to work hard to win back trust.

Dr Nathan Richardson

The sector has not got the balance right over the last 15 years, between the levels of investment needed and the price of water, and we are seeing the consequences. This isn’t just down to the companies; the regulators have a responsibility here too. The sector is going to have to work hard to win back trust.

Dr Richardson feels infrastructure investment simply must go up if we want secure water supplies and a healthy environment – and that we should all be paying based on what we use.

It is nonsense that so many households pay a flat fee no matter their consumption levels and so have little incentive to use water wisely. In terms of bills, I think people will get that we need to invest more. For me, the key thing is helping those who struggle with costs.

Variable tariffs make sense, but getting everyone smart metered is integral to making them work well. I envisage tariffs based on water availability with height charges in droughts, or a rising block set-up where the first chunk of ‘essential’ water we all need is free or very low cost but then the unit rate goes up the more ‘discretionary’ water you use. This could encourage people to use less and help with affordability.

A need for smart, holistic solutions

Incentives for water conservation are important but do not result in new water supplies or better water distribution. New water supplies need to be diverse, sustainable and affordable. Fundamentally, water resiliency requires thoughtful management of extremes of too much or too little water, says Jill Hudkins, long-term water infrastructure expert and President of Tetra Tech.

New water supplies need to be diverse, sustainable and affordable.

Jill Hudkins

In regions with limited water supplies, utilities are increasingly broadening their sourcing to include water reclamation and reuse, and treatment of new water supplies such as brackish groundwater to meet their water supply needs. They are also seeking to increase headroom in the system through more effective demand management; for example, reducing leakage, decreasing pressure and lowering per capita consumption provide cost-efficient means of increasing capacity. Digital technology also plays an important role in supporting conservation and smarter TOTEX (total cost of project) investment approaches for water utilities. Advanced analytics can be used to drive system optimisation, increase customer value and provide stakeholder transparency. Smart infrastructure investments benefit both communities and customers, without making bills for essential services unaffordable to low-income households.

A route to reducing water, comparable to that for reducing carbon, is possible, and basically outlined by Waterwise in its UK Strategy for Water Efficiency to 2030 which sets out water-saving benefits and how we can do it through behaviour change and technology.

Water is where carbon was a decade or so ago. We need to get it up the agenda as it will be the medium through which the effects of climate change are felt – with droughts and floods. Competition for available water between sectors and countries is going to increase as the population rises and climate change bites.

Dr Richardson

It’s going to take real leadership and cooperation to see us through without impacts on a massive scale. Governments do need to take the lead; water providers need to rise to the challenge, but we all have a role to play as water users in making sure we value water and use it wisely.

Be sure to look out for part 3 where we look at how to incorporate solutions which mimic the natural water cycle and provide a holistic design approach.