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Comment: Preparing for extreme weather events

The challenge of climate change resilience means that the conventional deterministic approach to drought planning is no longer appropriate, writes Ben Piper

by Ben Piper, Technical Director, Atkins

With the unusually hot weather in June, with temperatures exceeding 30 degrees in the UK combined with a prolonged period of less than average rainfall, the debate about extreme weather continues. One issue to be addressed is where the responsibility lies for ensuring our resources are future-proofed to cope with this stress. But to what extent has the water industry taken a role in helping to future-proof its infrastructure from weather extremes so it can demonstrate that resilience is part of its long-term planning?

To start with, the priority of the UK water industry is clear – to provide a safe, reliable supply for customers across the UK. And to achieve this, there has been an increasing need to ensure that the water industry as a whole plans for the long term. Put simply, there is more need than ever before for it to consider its role in protecting the UK against the growing risk of drought.

So what has happened to date? Since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989, the approaches and methodologies for water resource planning in the UK have developed into a set of guidelines that all water companies must adhere to in their Water Resource Management Plans (WRMP) and Drought Plans. In addition to the general development of methodologies to capture more robust data and to employ new analytical techniques, there have also been a number of extreme weather events - such as the 1995 drought that particularly impacted the north east, the 2007 summer floods, the dry winter of 2011-2012, and in parts of the UK, the dry winter of 2016-2017 continuing into 2017. These factors combined have not just changed conventional methodologies, but they have also changed legislation and regulation too. For example, the 1997 Water Summit led to the production of a 10-point plan on improving water management including the setting of mandatory leakage targets.

The traditional approach to water resource planning has been to assess how a water resource system would respond to high-levels of demand together with water resource availability under certain design conditions. Within the UK, the accepted practice has been to forecast ‘dry year’ demands (based on the pattern and magnitude of water into supply that have been experienced) and to use data from historic drought records. However, weather in recent years has thrown the credibility of this approach into doubt – take the dry winter of 2011-2012 where there was concern that there would be restrictions during the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games - this was quickly followed in April 2012 with the highest ever recorded rainfall totals in many places.

With the threat that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, it’s safe to say that as experts in the water industry, the conventional deterministic approach to supply-demand balance planning is no longer appropriate. The need to change the approach that the industry takes to water resources in the long term, and to ensure that there is a resilient supply for future generations is, I can safely say, now firmly on the agenda across the water industry. The AMP6 regulatory cycle is beginning to show a step change in the way in which water resources are planned and managed in the UK, and in particular, whether there are better ways to allow for uncertainty and risk in water resource and drought planning.

I think this is best demonstrated by four separate but very much related initiatives that can feed into the debate on policy and strategy moving forward:

1) Water UK – Water resources long-term planning framework 2015-2065 (published September 2016);

2) UKWIR – Methodologies for WRMP19 (published in 2016 and included in Environment Agency Water Resource Planning Guideline for WRMP19);

3) Joint UK Research Council MaRIUS project (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity (on-going);

4) UKWIR - RG06: Resilience – Performance measures, costs and stakeholder communication (awaiting publication); and Regional and individual water company initiatives – for example Water Resources in the South East (WRSE), Water Resources East (WRE).

The Water UK project has brought together the outputs from recent work and methodologies and has the potential to mark a clear change in the UK’s approach to water resource planning. The momentum that has been generated by that project combined with the recent UKWIR projects needs to be maintained in statutory plans and used to inform the work of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

I think that AMP6 is continuing to provide an excellent opportunity for a fresh focus on many aspects of water resource and drought planning. Ofwat is expected to include resilience-based performance commitments in its PR19 methodology. The Water UK project and the UKWIR projects have brought together the outputs from recent work and methodologies and has the potential to mark a clear change in the UK’s approach to water resource planning. What is required is the momentum that has been generated by the project is maintained in statutory plans and is used to inform the work of the National Infrastructure Commission. And for me, we need the discussion around weather extremes to be ongoing and not just brought to focus during a heatwave.

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