Mike Woolgar

UK & Europe

Mike is the market director for the water division at Atkins in the UK and has over 20 years' experience of working in a wide variety of technical fields. Nowadays Mike is largely involved in work that includes development of regulation in water service provision; transaction support for private financed development of treatment works; dams safety and new build; flood risk management, warning and defence; coastal processes; environmental project development; as well as ports and maritime projects.

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Earlier this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Global Water Partnership (GWP) jointly published a report “Securing Water, Sustaining Growth” which explicitly examined and confirmed links between the provision or lack of affordable and sustainable water resources and the impact on “economic growth, inclusiveness and structure of economies”.

This is pretty much the first time that this link – understood implicitly by many – has been explicitly made; and such a link ought to have significant policy implications for the developed and developing world as it confirms the inherent risks in the so-called water-energy-food (e.g. economic) nexus.

It has long been apparent that developed countries have invested over time in securing effective management of water whilst many developing countries are less secure, still needing investment to manage abundant resources, or to develop and manage scarce resources; this report looks at the linkages between economic resilience and water resilience and notes some clear relationships.

This is particularly important from a policy perspective in respect of “inclusive growth”.  Development agencies such as UK Department for International Development, whose mission is to “promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”, are now focussing more effort in their target countries on those more likely to miss out on economic security, due to their situation whether geographically or culturally constrained.

These people, comprising a large population, tend to be landless; have poor education standards; have restricted access to services by virtue of being old, female or infirm; have low incomes; poor standards of living; insecure livelihoods; and contribute little to the national economy.  By targeting development efforts to support their advancement to sustainable livelihoods - thereby reducing dependency on the state or on charitable support - development partners like DFID see a way forward to attack poverty, the diseases of poverty and the exclusion from mainstream economic improvement due to poverty.

Water can now be seen as a significant enabler of inclusive economic growth - rather than just a “rights” issue.  The “rights” approach, although on the face of it a helpful mantra, seems to me to actually be rather missing the point as it undermines the true value of water in an economic sense.

Recent discussions with the EIB water team suggest that they too see security of water as more important economically than previously - with projects under contemplation which would not earlier have been considered viable or bankable. They are now taking account of longer term benefits arising from self-sufficiency therefore allowing investment in projects with non-financial returns at least in the early years.

In the developed world, such as the UK for instance, there has been little or no policy thinking about water and its relationship to secure economic growth. Again, we know that when new housing is built there is a need to provide additional water service, both clean and dirty, but housing development is rarely looked at through the lens of economically available water.  Currently there is a focus in the UK on the lack of a real energy policy – ‘will we keep the lights on this year’ – but at some stage thinking needs to move on to the risks represented by water insecurity in the UK and in our supply chain – such as where we get our food, clothing and wood products from.

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An article in the FT (paywall) recently highlighted that more than a third of the world’s biggest aquifers, a vital source of fresh water for millions, are “in distress” because human activities are draining them, according to satellite observations. It is undoubtedly true that unconstrained use of aquifers is not sustainable. In many countries there is either no, or very ineffective, regulation of abstraction. This is sometimes based on the assumption, in the absence of good information, of the ability of the aquifer to replenish. Of course the aquifer should really only be exploited such that the inflow to create storage is not exceeded by the rate of abstraction. All too often the supposed regulators know neither how much water is taken nor how much is being replenished: people do not clearly report their abstraction and unless someone is checking flow meters on a regular basis it is all too easy to pump for longer than permitted or to install a more powerful pump. Add to this the high level of variability of rainfall, salinisation and other quality issues and clearly we are at risk of “mining” water rather than managing or husbanding it properly.

One of the world’s largest aquifers in the US – the Ogallala aquifer – has been ruined by lack of control. There are some states in the US where anything below your land belongs to you and may not be regulated. In the case of an expansive water aquifer which others can tap from “next door” there is little incentive to use water sparingly if your neighbours can all take the water at a high rate and deplete what is below your feet; indeed it might make some weird sort of sense to take what you can yourself before someone else profits from it!

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I read an article recently that said the UK could cut the cost of decarbonising its electricity supply by more than £3.5bn if it can create a grid-scale electricity storage system to balance the variable output of renewables.

It is clear that the benefits – both carbon and economic – of non-base load generation through wind, solar or other intermittent renewables can be optimised if excess generation from these sources can be stored for later use. In the absence of such storage, any excess energy generated at any point in time will be wasted and the need for sufficient base load when the intermittent supplies are not working remains, suggesting that more capital will be spent on systems backing each other up than would be the case in the absence of intermittent supplies.

The existence of significant interlinks with other major generation/transmission systems in Europe acts to some extent to even out supply and demand but as we increase the capacity of wind energy installations in particular there will come a time when such balancing will not work. Hence the need for some form of storage.

The use of pumped storage linked to wind farms is an obvious potential match and several schemes have been mooted, looking to take advantage of the potential peak prices available to offset the cost of the capital required for the joint system. The fact that in this country to date none has reached financial close is indicative of the probable mismatch currently between the costs plus risks and the revenues. Probably also indicative of the historical mismatch in incentives between wind/solar and “conventional” sources of energy. Unless the policy aspects of incentives are resolved appropriately, storage – whether by pumped storage systems, compressed hydrogen, the Dutch energy train system or any other storage – will probably continue to lag renewables installation leading to a likely over investment compared to a nominal optimum.

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New data from the World Resources Institute has revealed (source) that by 2030, 54 million people could be exposed to river flooding. It goes without saying that as populations increase, and increasingly urbanise, the density of populations and assets generally increases. Given that most towns, as engines which convert resources into wealth through manufacture, trading, adding value, services etc, were originally established on rivers and/or at the coast, such increase in density of population and assets automatically implies – even in the absence of climate change and weather volatility – an increase in the risk of damage or loss through river and/or coastal flooding as well as pluvial flooding; eg when heavy rainfall overwhelms sewer and drainage systems and causes local flooding. When you add climate change, sea level rise and the likelihood of increased and/or more intense storms the risk is expected to increase with more people affected and more property damage.

We are doing work, in Africa principally, looking at the populations at risk from river flooding disasters in order to inform disaster risk reduction policies and measures. Risk in this case does not just mean death and injury, but also the short term and longer term impacts on displaced people’s health, the fragility of these people’s ability to generate and maintain livelihoods in the face of repeated, and potentially increasing, events. Our work on Future Proofing Cities had the role of policy development and design of measures as a core issue in helping to mitigate and reduce such impacts. As the WRI report says, it will be a long road to change direction from unconstrained urban growth to controlled, managed and sustainable development.

In the UK we are also looking at more closely assessing the impacts of flooding on the economy, taking account of Treasury Green Book rules but also extending these macro measures to examine more closely real impacts on local economies, such that Local Authorities and other stakeholders can help to formulate plans to reduce pluvial/fluvial flooding impacts and hence help to reduce impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods.

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George Monbiot recently wrote a short polemic in the Guardian on the above subject, decrying poor land management as being a contributor to some of our flooding issues, signing off on the way Government soft pedals controls in the farming industry, providing monetary subsidies and regulatory relief subsidies: in effect about the lack of policy congruence in Government.

Whilst it is not a new thing that one Government policy may put strain on others, Mr Monbiot’s point about land use practice is a valid if slightly narrow one. Soil management is a pretty much neglected aspect but forms only a part of the rising concern about the water-energy-food nexus.

Leaving aside the energy aspects of the water-energy-food nexus for the moment, it is clear that water and food can be linked directly to soil management. Impoverished, overused, badly drained, ploughed in the wrong direction or at the wrong time of year, unprotected from wind erosion: soils the world over are under strain, being lost to erosion and having to work harder all the time to feed the ever growing population. In countries like Bangladesh, Malawi, Kenya where I have worked deforestation and use of marginal land has increased soil erosion which reduces crop productivity, clogs rivers exacerbating flooding and – getting back to energy – reduces electricity generation from hydropower with the silt damaging turbines and reducing flow quantities through the plant. Shallow, poorly structured and low organic content soils are much less able to store and hold rain water leading to increased run-off under intense rain and then the need to add water through irrigation – often using energy to achieve this – to restore the soil moisture balance.

Current loss of soil in the UK is less dramatic than in such other countries and less significant than it has been over recent history. Improved farming practice and a raised awareness of the role that land management can play in reducing flooding, slowing erosion and improving water quality combine to suggest we are slowly heading in the right direction.

Mr Monbiot is right to point out that integration of policies would be helpful in resolving multi-faceted problems such as catchment management for food, water quality, flooding, ecological value, landscape value, soil health etc but in my view weakens his argument by not addressing the land/water/economic interface that needs to be addressed – where is the integrated Government policy on water management, soil management, energy mix, economic impact/sustainability?

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The water sector is already facing a number of modern day challenges including adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, managing the needs of a growing population, complying with ever more stringent environmental standards, maintaining ageing infrastructure and meeting the requirements of a low carbon economy. With an impending shortage of engineers likely due to the focus on a wide range of infrastructure projects, it will lead to increased competition for resources in the industry. The sector could be hit by a number of challenges such as increased cost pressures, delays to projects and the loss of Intellectual property as outlined in the sector report.

These consequences could cause long term damage to the sector’s ability to plan, design and deliver our water needs for the next 100 years. Specifically, we need to be thinking seriously about how we will deliver the water, waste and flooding projects outlined in the government’s National Infrastructure Plan. If we don’t have enough engineers to deliver these projects, in parallel with all the other critical infrastructure in other sectors, such as energy, transport and digital infrastructure who are all competing for skills and resources, what will we do? Will projects be delayed? Cancelled? Or will projects need to be prioritised and what impacts could this have on the UK and society as a whole? All are potential challenges we could face in years to come, if we fail to tackle the skills shortage challenge head on.

However, we are already making good use of global design centres, where we can send design work which helps manage peaks and troughs in workload, but this cannot be the whole answer. In order to be able to prepare the right projects, support planning and implementation we need highly skilled and experienced engineers and scientists with the ability to create, maintain and extend our vital infrastructure. Sustainability in that sense depends on the intellectual capital we maintain and nurture in the UK.

I do believe one shining light is innovation. It needs to become the key driver in how we tackle the resource issues in the short term, whilst we focus on building up our engineering base in the UK. Ideas provide a catalyst for cross sector efficiency, infrastructure solutions, reducing resource reliance and showcasing the UK’s abilities as a leading infrastructure provider.

It’s important we in the industry take this report as the opportunity to be more effective and better co-ordinated across sectors to drive up the number of young people taking up STEM careers, through both the apprenticeship and university routes. As an industry we need to take the lead and invest in training and development. We must also push harder to change the perceptions of engineering as a profession, educating not only young people, but parents, teachers and the wider population about the great career opportunities and experiences on offer.

A full copy of the skills report is available to view/download here.

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I read with interest an article in Infrastructure Intelligence, which suggests that the UK is not very pro-active in terms of flood resilience but from my experience that rather misses much of what has been going on for the past few years.

Historically towns have developed at riversides, benefitting from the access to water supply and to the generally flat land for building, or at the coastline benefitting from transport links and trade opportunities. Events such as 1947, 1953 and 2007, not to mention the winter flooding along the Thames in 2014, show that we have managed to build an awful lot of our economic infrastructure as well as our housing in areas at risk from flooding, but much of this is already “locked in” to the system, and until recently there was pretty much unfettered development in such areas.

This was a significant weakness in the planning system: that the local planning authorities did not have to refer to any flood authority when designating land for development nor did they have to submit plans for consultation to such a flood authority. The almost inevitable result of this was that local authorities which benefitted from the economic stimulus and from the business or domestic rates from new development were keen to give permissions.

This is changing, with the Environment Agency as the competent authority now a statutory consultee for developments. The Executive Director for Flood Risk and Coastal Management at the EA mentioned at a flood resilience conference during the first week of November that since the EA have been consulted the majority of new developments are properly assessed for flood risk and permissions are not granted for badly located or inappropriate development. The EA is not consulted when small housing developments are promoted – fewer than 10 dwellings – so it is possible that some of these are still getting round the system but the trend is positive.

Flooding and coastal erosion risk are fully recognised in Government as a risk for housing, infrastructure and the economy. The National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies published by the Cabinet Office has, since 2008 at least, had coastal and inland flooding as two of the most notable risks. The Environment Agency is responsible for developing plans for improving flood risk management, working with other infrastructure providers (HA, Network Rail, generators), developers and local authorities to plan, design, finance and construct defences, warning systems and recovery plans.

Is enough being done? This is a political and economic question; it would always be possible to throw money at a problem and “solve” it but money is always scarce and competed for. Some areas will become too expensive to defend and the recent deal thrashed out between Government and the ABI to establish a sort of “captive” flood re-insurance fund is intended to provide a 20-25 year lifeline to residents and businesses in these difficult areas so they can invest to adapt or relocate. Resilience is not just about providing flood defences!

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