Converging journeys to make space for water
Guest Blog for: Government Business
03 September 2015
Alastair Moselely of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management discusses water management systems and their importance in creating more sustainable environments.
Sometimes when you are on a long journey, it is easy to forget where you have come from and where you are aiming for. This is particularly so in the case of the journey - or rather, journeys - to provide clean water for all to drink and protect our communities and countryside from the crippling effects of flooding.
The route to achieving sustainable water management systems in the UK is characterised by the convergence of two journeys – one for the sustainable management of surface water, and one for the sustainable provision of clean water and sanitation. It is this convergence that I believe gives us possibly the greatest opportunity we have seen in many generations to transform the way we shape both our urban and rural landscapes for the benefit of society and the environment together.
Looking first at our journey to achieving sustainable surface water management - or flood risk management as it is better known. This can be traced back over many decades, but the most significant and recent part of that journey starts with the severe floods causing devastation to our towns, cities and countryside in 2000. These and the ensuing major flood and drought events of the ‘noughties’ led to the instigation of a number of government initiatives including studies, reports, consultations and legislation to address the unacceptable disruption to society that was occurring.
Making space for water
Arguably the first and most influential of these was the Defra ‘Making Space for Water’ initiative which started in 2004, running to 2008/9. A core component was a series of 15 ‘Integrated Urban Drainage Pilot Studies’ in England which clearly demonstrated how communities, local government and scientists could work together to create sustainable flood risk management outcomes.
They showed how the creation of surface water management plans, and the use of SUDS and above-ground flood routing could control the flow of water in urban environments more naturally. The practical experience of these pilots coupled with the legislation to deliver more effective, community based projects to prevent flooding has given us a practical and proven way of addressing flood risk at a macro and micro level.
The reform of water supply
Turning now to our second journey, the reform of our water supply and sewerage infrastructure. This has its origins over three decades ago with the creation of regional water authorities to manage the water supply and sewage disposal in our towns and cities. Privatisation of the water authorities in 1989 started a heavily regulated journey of asset creation and renewal to redress the endemic neglect of the water supply and sewage disposal infrastructure that existed prior to privatisation.
However, for the first ten years or so this was done largely in isolation from the wider urban and surface water collection infrastructure and it was only from 2000 that the water company investment programmes (AMPs) began to take notice of the interaction between water company assets and the communities and urban infrastructure that they served.
AMPs 4 and 5, spanning 2005 to 2015, in particular saw the water companies promote asset investment and maintenance programmes that were much more customer and environment facing. With the drive for greater innovation and efficiency called for by the water regulator, Ofwat, we are now seeing asset creation programmes that are often reliant upon delivery through partnerships with stakeholders, collaboration with the supply chain and outcome based.
The result has been lower cost capital investment delivering far greater benefits for the customer and environment alike than were achieved in the early years of privatisation. Typically now, a sewerage scheme will no longer simply be the replacement of a sewer or sewer network, but rather a blend of surface water management, separation of foul and surface water flows, public realm enhancements and community engagement.
This holistic approach to managing water flows in a wide area is now commonly promoted as ‘Catchment Management’, a term previously more associated with water resource and land management. However, it offers up great opportunities to integrate water asset planning with urban and environmental planning and huge potential to transform the way that we design and build our urban infrastructure and create inspirational places to live whilst enhancing the environment and protecting the most precious resource that we have – water!
These two journeys are therefore clearly converging and through the common approach of catchment management and community engagement we now have the opportunity to completely integrate the way we manage flood risk, with water supply, sewage disposal and creating greener, more pleasant environments in which to live and work, sustainably. The term ‘Making Space for Water’ clearly was quite visionary, because by making space for water in our communities through catchment management or rather integrated water management approaches, we can realise huge benefits for society.
Potential UK convergence
At present, our towns and cities are still largely dependent on the Victorian approach to the provision of water and sanitation, characterised by centralised collection, treatment and distribution of drinking water, followed by collection, treatment and discharge of sewage combined with rainwater. This relies on vast networks of pipes to distribute water and collect sewage, all running beneath our roads and transport routes, and all subject to aging, deterioration and damage.
Of course there was nothing wrong with the Victorian model and it has served us well for 100 years and more – but with increasing populations, 24/7 lifestyles and climate change leading to more intense rainfall coupled with prolonged dry periods, this infrastructure is increasingly unable to provide the levels of service that our developing society needs – and it leads to the waste of water that flows away to rivers at a time when the demands on our finite water resources are increasing.
The convergence of the two journeys may well therefore be Water Sensitive Urban Design. This is becoming a reality through the new technologies and materials that we are able to use. Powerful computer models are enabling us to process the many strands needed to design and create a built environment with water at its heart. Communication technologies are enabling us to introduce computer activated controls into our water management systems. The Building Information Management (BIM) revolution that we are seeing in the building industry has a key part to play in this, coupled with advances in water system modelling of flows both in pipes and overland.
Sustainable drainage systems, often the dream of environmentalists and scourge of water companies, are at last being seen as a viable way of draining urban environments, slowing down run-off flows and reducing flooding whilst at the same time creating greener and more pleasant environments to live in. And with the slowing down of run-off using storage, comes the opportunity to harvest the stored water for reuse at source – rather than importing vast quantities of water from one catchment, using it and then shipping it off to another, at huge cost both financially and in terms of the energy use.
Water sensitive urban design
This approach of collecting water locally and treating it to a standard appropriate for use is being increasingly known as ‘Decentralised Water Management’ or ‘Off Grid Water’. Whilst it might at first seem to be a radical move away from what we know as water supply and sewerage, it offers real opportunities to make the most of the water that we have, at a time when the need to conserve water and protect the environment in parallel is becoming ever more necessary.
There are many initiatives emerging all around the country to adopt water sensitive urban design approaches to new development, and the water companies are also becoming more interested in the decentralised approach to water management that is a core component of this. However, case studies in the UK are still hard to find although there are many examples of this approach in Europe, America and Australia.
The Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), through our Urban Drainage Group and our Rivers and Coastal Group, is actively promoting this new sustainable approach to water management and urban design and has promoted several conferences in recent years in partnership with the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA). CIRIA has recently published a guide to Water Sensitive Urban Design in the UK and together with CIWEM is providing the focus for water engineers, architects and planners alike to achieve the vision of putting water at the heart of our towns and cities.
Alastair Moseley is a water and environmental management consultant and director of H2O WEM Ltd. He is an Honorary Vice President of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.