World Water Day: Planning for extremes - a spotlight on water resources

Ben Piper | 22 Mar 2017 | Comments

With World Water Day this week, we’ve turned our attention to the work that is being done across the world to manage our precious water resources.

The priority of the UK water industry is clear – to provide a safe, reliable supply for customers across the UK. In order to deliver this, there has been an increasing need to ensure that the water industry as a whole plans for the long term –and 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 have to 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 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 and the dry winter of 2011-2012. 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 condition.  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, which 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:

  • Water UK – Water resources long-term planning framework (2015-2065) (published September 2016);
  • UKWIR – Methodologies for WRMP19 (published in 2016 and included in Environment Agency Water Resource Planning Guideline for WRMP19);
  • Joint UK Research Council MaRIUS project (Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of drought and water Scarcity (MaRIUS) (on-going) ; and
  • Regional and individual water company initiatives – for example Water Resources in the South East (WRSE), Water Resources East (WRE).

In my view, to future-proof our water resources, there needs to be better linkages between assessments of source yield for Water Resource Management Plans (WRMP) and for Drought Plans.  And more importantly, these plans need to well and truly consider how they will be affected by climate change.   

I think that AMP6 is continuing to provide an excellent opportunity for a fresh focus on many aspects of water resource and drought planning, not least to incorporate the latest concepts on risk-based planning.  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. 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 (NIC).