With British Water’s conference on creating a more sustainable water sector approaching, Stephen Kennedy, head of digital and innovation at UK water solution provider MWH Treatment shared his views on the challenge of defining sustainability, how to make sustainable solutions business-as-usual, and why the water sector must work together for a more sustainable future.
What does ‘sustainable water sector’ mean?
One of the challenges is defining what ‘sustainable’ actually means for the water sector. It is such a broad topic and there are so many different interpretations of what it looks like in practice.
Sustainability encompasses everything from ensuring resilience in the supply chain, to focusing on driving down carbon emissions, through to the broader catchment thinking that looks at the water cycle holistically.
A sustainable water sector means ensuring the sector is able to deliver the government’s environment bill targets in a manner that is affordable, innovative, acceptable for customers and attractive to investors. Sustainability requires all parts of the water sector working together to provide the resources and capability required to meet future needs of customers and communities.
A hot topic at the moment is ensuring resilience and sustainability within the supply chain. The volume of work that needs to be developed and delivered in the UK water sector, in current and future asset management plan (AMP) periods is a challenge. Ensuring that the water sector is at least equally as attractive to the supply chain and investors as competing infrastructure sectors will be critical.
Something which does not get spoken about enough is ensuring there are sustainable human resources in the water sector. It is no secret that the industry has limited diversity. If the sector is to have a chance of delivering sustainable services in AMP8 — the period 2025-2030 — and beyond, we are going to have to make it attractive to a more diverse range of people with broader skillsets.
Which digital technologies are being harnessed to drive greater sustainability in day-to-day operations?
The sector is making progress in delivering a digital transformation of the water sector, and there are great examples of how digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are already helping deliver assets efficiently.
So far, the greatest successes have been in the use of digital technologies to drive efficiencies at a project level — primarily because there is existing information and understanding of the assets.
The challenge is the lack of open data around the whole catchment. For example, a lot of work is being undertaken on monitoring river quality — capturing data and information within wastewater networks, and understanding how they operate and how this links back to data from weather forecasts and metering data. However, it still has to be integrated and turned into meaningful information that can be used by multiple stakeholders for insights and action.
The industry is well placed to deliver open data and has the capability, expertise, and incentives to do so, but it is at the start of this journey, and companies would need to make this more of a priority and work together to unlock the best outcomes from open data.
In doing so, the long-term sustainability of our assets and services can be secured.
What role do nature-based solutions (NbS) play in creating a more sustainable water sector?
NbS have a role to play in a sustainable water sector, but they are not the only tools, and they are not a panacea to all our challenges.
The UK has a high population density, which means there will always need to be infrastructure, including treatment works, that will require more conventional technologies.
There is a common misconception that NbS and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) are wholly natural solutions, but many still require engineering elements. The key to sustainability will be to effectively integrate NbS, and SuDS into more traditional approaches.
What are the key drivers behind creating a more sustainable water sector?
There are multiple drivers, encompassing influence from the regulatory and political spheres along with social and environmental issues, and each one is inextricably linked to the others.
The key regulatory driver is the new environment bill. There is a lot of information around policies, ambitions, targets and goals, but it is the legislation that actually defines what must be achieved, and by when.
At the moment many of the ambitions have not made it through into legislation, and the sector is in a watch and wait pattern. It is a challenging environment, especially when we consider that across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland there is an amount of divergence — with different applications and targets being set around sustainability.
Politically, there are now several key figures in the media with an interest in issues like river quality and pollution. This is great in terms of ensuring accountability, but it also has a direct impact on the political pressure being brought to bear on the sector.
The challenge comes when politicians respond to that pressure with short-term thinking, rather than considering the longer-term implications, and whether a quick resolution — popular with campaigners and the general public — is the most sustainable in the long run.
In terms of the environmental and social drivers — the UK has a number of unique environments, for example oak woodlands and chalk streams, and is suffering a significant decline in natural biodiversity. The UK has lost almost half its biodiversity since the 1970s.
Over the past 200 years our environment has been heavily modified to meet the requirements of a growing population and urban development. Now the goals need to be reset, and environmental protection and enhancement placed at the centre of our thinking. We must acknowledge the way the water network was made resilient in the past is no longer sustainable — especially with the climate crisis causing more severe weather events such as floods and droughts.
What is the role of communications in creating a more sustainable water sector?
Open, effective and transparent communication — both across the water sector and when engaging with politicians, stakeholders and the general public — has never been more important and will be key to creating a sustainable sector.
This was a central driver behind British Water’s planning for the ‘Creating a More Sustainable Water Sector Conference’, which MWH Treatment is sponsoring. The event offers a platform to celebrate recent successes in creating a more sustainable sector, reflect on the challenges ahead and identify opportunities to resolve these issues through communication and collaboration.
The speakers will cover the principles of sustainability and the challenges around the risk of green washing, discuss how NbS can be deployed, and look at net zero technology solutions. It will also focus on the social value created by the sector and what positive steps are being taken to do even more.
British Water’s ‘Creating a More Sustainable Water Sector’ conference takes place in the UK, on 29 Mar 2023.