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Why we want a joined-up approach to water resources

With vision and decisive action, water providers in mature economies around the world could achieve transformative change over the next two decades, delivering social and environmental as well as economic benefits. The key to unlocking them is a systems-based approach to water resources, explain Sally Watson and Judy Anderson.

Imagine looking back from 2040. Water supplies are secure, harvests yield more, rivers and the sea are cleaner, and biodiversity is making a comeback. There are new job opportunities, cleaner air, reduced risk of flooding and customers pay lower bills. How?

The water sector has adopted a systems-based approach to water management so that resources, requirements, assets and risks are managed holistically. It’s a system that facilitates effective collaboration between water and wastewater providers and their stakeholders – customers and community groups, local and national government, industry bodies, special interest groups and regulators. It also enables sustainable water management at catchment and inter-catchment scale, with data and digital twins – digital representations of the physical world – providing the necessary insight, communication and decision-making support.

Enabled by data

Enabled by data

Digitally assisted collaboration has been the game-changer. Taking a catchment-wide view, stakeholders can monitor the health of the aquatic and wider environment, and track the condition and performance of water and wastewater assets.

Data and digital twins have made it possible to spot issues and prioritise action to improve service. They have also assisted better communication between water providers, the communities they serve and other stakeholders, promoting trust.

Water providers can run scenarios to examine the effects of population growth and climate change, helping them to pre-empt and work to prevent asset failures, pollution incidents and emerging public health issues (more on this in ‘New contaminants’ below).

When unexpected asset failure does occur, owners and managers can respond swiftly – in some cases in real time – to limit loss of service. Concerns from customers or any other stakeholder are flagged, enabling them to be investigated and prioritised. Remedial interventions are consulted on and their impacts modelled. Post-implementation, performance and impacts are monitored.

Systems thinking and digital collaboration have given rise to regional, inter-catchment water management strategies. Water has long been transferred from catchments with abundant resources to areas of scarcity, but inter-catchment transfers have now become much more dynamic, with data enabling stakeholders to rapidly and easily understand the implications of moving water from one place to another.

Visibility of data also provides unprecedented insight into environmental and social impacts, as well as asset performance. Resource management strategies combine transfers with storage, water recycling and water conservation to achieve water security and preserve and enhance environmental health.

Efforts to drive down demand, tackle leaks and engage with customers to reduce consumption allow water companies to progressively reduce the need for water transfers between catchments. This is aided by a drive to improve the quality of wastewater discharge, leading to all inland waters being designated bathing waters. Tangible environmental action from water companies and more meaningful customer engagement has in turn created greater trust and willingness from households to reduce demand.

Read about our work with the UK Department for the Environment & Rural Affairs in developing a systems approach to resource management.

Many players

Many players

Achieving sustainable resource management has involved all industries that impact – or are impacted by – the water industry, including water-intensive sectors such as energy, agriculture and manufacturing.

Interventions in each sector are analysed for their effect on all, identifying areas of mutual benefit or where interests are not aligned, with the aim of achieving satisfactory compromises and positive outcomes for all.

The benefits from collaboration between the water and agricultural industries are particularly strong. How land is managed has a major influence on water quality and the amount of treatment required to make it fit for consumption.

Over the course of nearly two decades, farmers have reduced their use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, while ploughing patterns and livestock management have been adjusted. This has reduced contamination of rainwater run-off, resulting in cleaner streams, rivers and lakes. Better land management has also slowed the rate of run-off, allowing more water to enter the ground and replenishing aquifers. What do farmers receive in return? Improved soil quality and reduced water stress, which deliver high crop yields at lower cost.

Manufacturers have become more water-efficient by treating their own wastewater to recover valuable chemicals and recycle water. It has reduced the volume of wastewater that manufacturers discharge into the environment and improved its quality.

Policy and regulation have played an important role in changing behaviour, with strong and well-aimed financial incentives and penalties. Protection standards have been introduced to control an ever-wider range of industrial chemicals, including pollutants from personal care products and pharmaceuticals (see ‘Combating new contaminants’ below).

Building and planning codes have been tightened to drive water efficiency in new commercial and residential developments and major refurbishments.

With state support, water providers have campaigned to change public attitudes to water and turn around the long-term rise in per-capita consumption. Smart meters allow customers see how their behaviour affects their water use. Greater environmental awareness combined with incentives for customers to use water responsibly and efficiently is driving down demand and reducing bills. Water efficiency labelling is mandatory on new appliances and fittings.

Water and wastewater providers have innovated too. They don’t always meet water and wastewater treatment needs with new physical assets but are instead using nature-based solutions where space allows, such as engineered wetlands in which plants provide much of the filtration and purification traditionally carried out by mechanical means.

Providers have also used nature-based solutions on their own land – and working with private landowners – to meet the dual needs of carbon capture (see ‘Net-zero’ below) and flood control: woods and wild meadows act as sponges, soaking up rainfall.

Chain reaction

Chain reaction

A truly joined-up, systems-based approach has been key to achieving progress across the water industry. It has been transformative in enabling the industry to reduce its carbon emissions to net-zero, develop a circular economy and combat new pollutants, as outlined below.

By 2040, a systems approach has become the enabler of sustainable water resource management, itself a foundation for the sustainability of society, the economy and the environment.

      Sally Watson is Mott MacDonald’s digital leader for water

      Judy Anderson is Mott MacDonald’s global practice leader for water

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