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.