The UK and the world are both thinking hard about maintaining supplies of the “most fundamental utility” (water) with challenges that it is widely predicted could make the financial crisis look like a well-brewed storm in a teacup. However, technology is creating optimism. Jon Herbert examines local and global challenges, and problems.

Gold is not scarce in nature. What is scarce are concentrations of gold that can be mined economically. Water is in much the same boat. The planet has as much H2O as ever. The problem from a people perspective is that it is often in the wrong place at the wrong time, too expensive, or too salty. A growing political, social, technical and commercial dilemma is the result.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. A project that has helped to turn severe drought into a national water surplus in the Middle East after just eight years could offer a much wider alternative model (see below).

Meanwhile, future water shortages have the potential to prove even more disruptive than financial market instabilities, cyber threats, or terrorism — especially if whole populations are uprooted in search of secure new resources. The UK is not exempt. Last winter’s flooding aside, guaranteeing reliable industrial and domestic water supplies is a tough challenge requiring new technologies and large-scale solutions.

For the last quarter century since privatisation, water industry investments have been co-ordinated in a series of five-year blocks. The first was called Asset Management Period (AMP) and a key driver has been consumer value for money — keeping bills low.

AMP6 began in 2015 with the aim of keeping down increasing bills through greater efficiency. However, it also includes a shift from capital to total expenditure designed to see upgrades built to last longer and operate for less. AMP6 will be expensive in the short-term but cost-effective in the long-term.

In practical terms, the UK water industry has been asked to take the unprecedented step of thinking 50 years ahead with infrastructure plans that are not necessarily the cheapest today. This could usher in innovations that include modern low-energy seawater desalination and filter technologies. The UK currently operates one major desalination plant at Beckton in London. However, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) believes that at least four other major units, and up to 800 smaller ones, could be built on UK coasts and estuaries by 2050. Globally, desalination is now crucial.

Another future development in the pipeline could be much greater focus on recycling and reusing water in location. Wastewater, treated to EU standards, is currently released to surface waterways and makes its way down to the sea. For many UK people, the idea that wastewater is also a water source present at the right place and right time that can be made drinkable again may be unpalatable — though they drink it on the International Space Station! There is, however, a major push to reuse water in industry and especially agriculture where losses are unsustainable. If the UK does build a new fleet of up to six nuclear power stations, reuse systems could provide the large volumes of water needed.

Water, water …

Water is traditionally taken for granted in the UK. The average person in England uses some 150 litres of water daily (33 gallons) directly and indirectly — almost a tonne a week. Weight is important when thinking about moving water from wetter areas — the rainy “north” — to the drier south east and east of England. The present approach is to link up adjacent water systems during shortages and let gravity do the work wherever possible.

One other huge UK and global problem is leakage from old and damaged pipes. More than one-third of the world’s drinking water vanishes between its source and end-users — a whopping 49 billion cubic metres lost every year to system inefficiency.

The UK does water well. Leaks from Victorian pipework aside, the UK industry is well-versed in delivering ever-more efficient services within a rigorous commercial and technical environment. Average England and Wales 2016 to 2017 household water service bills will average £389 — an increase of less than 1% over the previous year.

Price increases are not arbitrary, but approved by the industry regulator, Ofwat, after close consultations with the end-user — customers. The industry itself points out that while the price increase is small, it will deliver an average 5% real price drop between 2015 and 2020. Extra money will go towards £44 billion invested over the next half decade in better services, increased system resilience against natural events such as floods or tidal surges, plus environmental improvements.

Specifically, the aim is to save 370 million litres a day in leaks and improved operational efficiencies. There is also a target to reduce water supply interruptions by 32% and another to cut wastewater flooding into properties from sewers by 33%. A million extra people will also receive help in paying their bills, with all companies meeting their commitments to introduce social tariff schemes by summer 2016.

The importance of UK water strategy was further underlined recently by a £8.2 million award to the Cranfield University Water Science Institute 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 and Cities (UKCRIC) that has 100% match funding from other sources.

On the world stage

Another recent report finds that water evaporation losses could mean that humankind’s global water footprint is nearly 20% higher than first thought. Changing land and water use, lost crop irrigation water and a warmer atmosphere holding more water vapour are primary causes.

The figures involved are colossal. By the old calculation, human water consumption totalled 9100 km3 annually. Our actual water footprint is now estimated to be closer to 10,700km3/year. That is a lot of Olympic-sized swimming pools!

As the world population grows by 80 million people annually, 40% more water, 36% more energy and 50% more food will be needed by 2030. A growing taste for meat makes matters worse. Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s available fresh water. Producing 1kg of grain-fed beef requires 15,000 litres of irrigation water to grow fodder.

The UN estimates that more than one billion people live in areas of water scarcity; the World Bank forecasts that this figure could reach 3.5 billion by 2025 — half of the planet’s present population. At least four billion people suffer water scarcity for at least one month every year. An estimated 0.5 billion eke out their existence where water consumption is twice the amount replenished by annual rainfall. Aquifers are exploited to make up the difference. However, aquifers globally are in trouble too, putting more people and lifestyles at risk not only in China, India, Australia and California but also in London.

Trouble with water…

World groundwater extraction has increased by 1% every year since 1980. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also warns that for each extra degree of global warming, an extra 7% of the world’s population face a circa 20% decrease in renewable water availability.

The global effects of leakage might seem marginal given that some 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. Yet 97.5% is salty or brackish. Of the tiny 2.5% freshwater fraction left, nearly 70% is locked up in polar ice or glaciers, with a further 30% held underground in groundwater or deep aquifers. Only 1% is readily available in lakes or rivers. This is why making great use of local resources, including wastewater, and investing in innovative commercial solutions is set to become so important.

Getting our own back

Reused water solutions may be relatively new to the UK but are working in other parts of the world.

Hong Kong’s new Tai Po plant is an alternative supply for industrial users — the environment minister recently drank a glassful to emphasise its quality. Domestic users still receive conventional supplies.

India has passed legislation making it compulsory for industrial users to take supplies from recycling plants within a 50-mile radius to minimise pumping costs.

Storing fresh water in dams is an alternative. Singapore has built a barrage to both keep out salty water and create the city’s first reservoir.

The significance for the UK is problem and solution parallels in the Thames catchment as London sinks and sea levels rise. For much of the Thames, the flooding solution is upstream. However, how diverted water is handled is crucial and underground storage is likely to be a major factor in and around the capital city.

Elsewhere, the situation is more chronic. California, for example, has approved emergency legislation mandating a 25% drinking water use reduction in urban areas. The State’s Supreme Court says water resource management cases surpass any other legal issues it hears. California is constructing 60km of tunnels to move spare water from the north to the parched south with its large agricultural industry.

Similar water pressures are adding to more aggressive tensions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East states.

Sorek — a vision of what can be achieved

Perhaps one of the most inspiring visions of what can be achieved with water comes from Israel’s new Sorek desalination plant — currently the world’s largest.

In 2008, Israel faced the worst drought in 900 years. Now a combination of ingenious conservation measures coupled with state-of-the-art desalination plants, including reverse osmosis innovations at Sorek to keep membranes free of biofouling, mean that one of the world’s driest countries gets 55% of its drinking water from desalination at a cost of 58 cents per thousand litres.

Sorek is the latest in a series of Israeli desalination plants that will produce 650 million m3 by 2020. With water to spare, the project innovators are anxious to engage in “water diplomacy”. They may get their chance at the 2018 “Water Knows No Borders” conference which will bring together water scientists from Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Their hope is to unite everyone in a common cause.

Published by Croner-i on 6 September 2016



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