The UK’s sixth water infrastructure investment round since privatisation in 1989 is now underway with an armoury of new technologies and efficiency-raising tools designed to keep supply levels high and prices low during the increasingly uncertain wet and dry years ahead.
It has never been easy to guarantee top-quality water supplies – and matching wastewater treatment services – across the infamously wet, but often extremely dry, British Isles.
Population growth, the chaotic effects of climate change, plus demanding standards, make the task even harder, especially when tidal surges and torrential floods muddy the picture still further.
The result is a tough challenge for UK water companies, their supply chains, partners and contractors, not only in delivering infrastructure but also winning rigorous tender and selection processes where robust verifiable data is vital.
Since the Thatcher Government privatised water at the end of the 1980s, new infrastructure investments have been coordinated in five-year periods.
For the first five years, investments were made during what was called the Asset Management Period (AMP). AMP6 began in 2015 and promises to be more demanding than its predecessors.
In AMP6, UK water companies, and the many specialist equipment manufacturers and services providers who work with them, have been asked to raise their sights much further into the future.
The sector is now expected to look ahead strategically at problems and solutions that will work efficiently and cost-effectively up to 2050 and beyond – whatever the weather!
Selecting the right contractors and suppliers can be crucial in pulling together the best team for such demanding jobs. At this point, access to the reliable data that Red Flag Alert specialises in producing can make a critical difference.
One very important goal will be to build in ‘resilience’ so that the UK water system can bounce back from the worst droughts, floods, storms and other extreme weather events that climate scientists and meteorologists are now certain global warming will bring.
However, the UK water industry has already proved itself to be resilient. Over the last quarter century, it has met very demanding EU directives designed to deliver water and sewage treatment services at realistic costs and a wider pollution-free water environment.
It is easy to forget that before the violent 2015-2016 winter floods in Northwest England and similar events in Yorkshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, much of the East and Southeast was parched by ultra-low rainfalls in 2004-2006.
There are 18 water companies in England and Wales, one in Northern Ireland and 11 licence-holders in Scotland. With their specialist teams, they are expected to cope under all circumstances. Critics can be harsh.
From the Victorian to the new-Elizabethan
Before 1989, the UK suffered from an out-dated Victorian water network which, though excellent in its day, was crumbling at an alarming rate. Privatisation brought in a large injection of much needed new cash.
The challenge now facing the water industry is to keep price rises low through more efficient working while also starting to build the pump stations, shafts, tunnels, mains, pipelines, treatment plant, sewers and long sea outfalls needed for a more rigorous future - the new Elizabethan ‘golden age’.
The sector has been asked to take the unprecedented step of implementing long-term plans that are not necessarily the cheapest today. AMP6 will almost certainly be expensive in the short-term but effective in the long-term.
That is no small ask and involves a shift from capital to total expenditure, whereby not only plant construction but also on-going operations reach a new level of efficiency.
The water regulator, Ofwat, has suggested that future AMP periods might be extended from five to eight years and is keen to see increasing competition and competitiveness and a greater role for markets, while retaining investor confidence and ensuring low bills.
Meanwhile, another part of the answer could well be found in new innovative technologies, some of which may require a subtle change in attitudes from the water-drinking public.
Advances in the desalination of seawater and new micro-filter engineering methods are likely to have a place in the new technology mix. Historically, desalination has been seen as energy-intensive, and therefore carbon-intensive. That is no longer true.
The UK currently operates just one major desalination plant at Beckton in London. However, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (ImechE) believes that at least four further large-scale units, and up to 800 smaller ones, could be built on UK coasts and estuaries by 2050. Globally, desalination is now crucial with an estimated 18,000 plants operating, some of them extremely efficiently.
Another future development in the pipeline could be much greater focus on recycling and reusing water in location.
As it is, UK wastewater, treated to EU standards, is currently released to surface waterways and makes its way down to the sea. For many people the idea that wastewater is also a water source conveniently present at the right place and right time that can be made drinkable again may seem unpalatable.
Nature recycles wastewater (very dilute sewage) naturally back into clean sparkling water. Although the same perfectly harmless fluid can be produced synthetically – as astronauts on the International Space Station can confirm – there may be some initial taboos about literally getting your own.
Meanwhile, a major push is underway to reuse water in industry, and especially agriculture where losses are unsustainable. If the UK does opt to build a new fleet of up to six nuclear power stations, reuse systems could provide the large volumes of water needed.
Water, water …
Perhaps we are spoilt when it comes to water, which is traditionally taken for granted in the UK.
The average person in England may not realise that they use some 150 litres of water daily (33 gallons) directly and indirectly - almost a tonne a week. Weight becomes important if you plan to move water from wetter areas – say, the rainy ‘North’ – to the drier South East and East of England. The present approach is linking neighbouring water systems during shortages to balance up local or sub-regional flows using gravity where possible.
During the big drought of 2004-2006, only strict water controls avoided a real crisis. Drought is still a significant risk despite intense recent flooding. It is predicted that summer rainfall will halve towards the end of the 21st Century. This will not be offset by an anticipated 30% winter rainfall increase.
The UK water sector actually performs rather well. Leaking Victorian cast-iron mains aside, the UK industry’s history of delivering efficient services within a rigorous commercial and technical environment means that during 2016-2017 household water service bills in England and Wales will average £389. This is an increase of less than 1% over the preceding year.
All price rise rises are scrutinised by Ofwat which consults with customers closely.
The industry itself notes that the price increase is small and expects to deliver an average 5% real price drop in 2015-2020. It says that the extra money will go towards £44 billion invested over the next half decade in better services, increased resilience andenvironmental improvements.
More specifically, the aim is to save 370 million litres a day from repaired leaks and improving operational efficiencies. There is also a target to reduce water supply interruption times by 32%. Wastewater flooding from sewers into properties will also be cut by 33%.
However, tracking water in the UK from leaving water treatment plants until it comes back to wastewater treatment plants is complicated by the country’s unusual combination of storm overflows and sewers.
Technology is helping. Water meters can provide accurate data. The difference between the volume pumped to customers versus how much is used at its destination, and when, explains leakage.
In addition, one million extra people will receive help in paying their bills; all companies are due to meet their commitments to introduce social tariff schemes by summer 2016.
EU makes it tricky
Another IMechE report at the end of last year suggested that EU legislation is forcing up energy and chemical us ewith water, resulting in unnecessary carbon emissions. Ferric chloride, ferrous sulphate and aluminium salts are added routinely to control nitrogen and phosphorus contamination. Water quality has improved. However, the cost is ‘excessively stringent, universal rules’ with negative environmental impacts that are the opposite of what was intended, says the institution.
The importance of UK water strategy was further underlined recently by a £8.2 million award to the Cranfield University Water Science Institute in Bedfordshire as part of a scheme with 14 other UK universities to help shape the UK’s future water and wastewater infrastructure.
The investment is part of a wider £138 million government package for the UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities (UKCRIC) that has 100% match funding from other sources.
Finance will be focused on extending industrial-scale test facilities for treatment and distribution processes, future technologies - including low-energy treatment, plus nutrient and energy recovery - condition monitoring and performance assessment. Funding will also go towards new pilot hall facilities, infrastructure monitoring and a control suite.
Fundamental to delivering a modern UK water system adaptable and resilient for the future will be the right combination of people, skills and business track-records, an area where Red Flag Alert is particularly well-qualified to contribute.