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The Water Challenge That Waits for No Man

What is the biggest challenge facing the UK water industry? Competition? Regulatory reform? Boom and bust in the supply chain? - they would all get plenty of votes from Edie readers.

But according to the outgoing chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith, there’s only one undeniable answer:  It’s climate change.    The developing impact of changing weather patterns will shape everything in water policy for the next 30 to 40 years, he believes. 

Our first hand experience of swings between drought and floods seem to confirm that Climate Change is with us to stay – but the effects can be catastrophic.   According to a report published earlier this year by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), disasters caused by weather-, climate- and water-related hazards are on the rise worldwide.  Flooding poses the greatest risks of all. 

For wastewater operators, climate change presents a particularly uncomfortable ‘double whammy’:    On the one hand, adapting sewerage and treatment plant assets to be resilient to increasing weather pressures requires upgrading of equipment.  

On the other hand, building new plant to cope with increased flows is likely to increase energy usage and carbon footprint, contributing to the very greenhouse gases that made the new processes necessary:  A vicious circle.

In a country where a reputed climate change skeptic can still get to be (albeit briefly) Secretary of State for the Environment, surely we need to have a more determined and revolutionary approach to adaptation measures. 

Operators will need to monitor more closely what effect changing weather patterns have on operating efficiency and energy usage.  That means more awareness of how key processes in wastewater treatment, like grit removal for example, are affected by the likely greater variation in flows. 

As we move into AMP6, we need open minds to innovation and complete commitment to Totex approaches, prioritising energy saving solutions – like processes that use gravity rather than power for example.   There must also be a much greater focus on positive and pro-active maintenance regimes and condition monitoring, to optimize equipment efficiency and minimize electricity consumption. 

Wastewater treatment also has to be galvanized into a process for energy recovery, rather than waste to be dealt with, as part of a truly integrated water management strategy.  Not much to ask for, but there’s no denying it’s a necessity.

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