Transition to a sustainable economy to help to protect your water and wastewater services

Climate has changed naturally in the past but there’s evidence that humans are also having a significant effect. By releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation, this is causing the Earth to warm up leading to long-term changes in weather conditions – also known as climate change.

Why does it matter?

We may think the impacts of climate change will be seen far into the future, however, we’re already seeing the effects of more variable weather. These are three recent examples of how weather can threaten your water supply and wastewater services:

  1. A prolonged period of below average rainfall from 2010 to early 2012 resulted in one of the ten most significant droughts of one to two years duration in the last 100 years for England and Wales. This resulted in low reservoir levels and hosepipe bans affecting six million consumers. This also threatened the water supply to the Olympic Games in London, which saw a hosepipe ban being introduced in early April. But shortly after, the potential significant drought impacts were avoided due to exceptional rainfall from April to July. It turned out to be ‘the wettest drought on record’ and made communications on water efficiency challenging (and interesting) for Thames Water.
  2. The UK experienced a succession of major storms through the winter of 2013/2014. The severe conditions broke a number of weather records and it became the wettest winter in the UK since records began. Large parts of the UK were affected by surface water flooding which threatened water and wastewater treatment works and other vital assets, and also caused flooding to properties from overloaded sewers.
  3. A few months ago, the UK was affected by a cold spell nicknamed “the Beast from the East” which brought unseasonably low temperatures and heavy snowfall from Scandinavia. The freezing conditions and a sudden thaw left water pipes badly damaged across the country and disrupted water supply to thousands of homes and businesses.

Examples like these demonstrate that severe weather and climate change will have serious implications for the long-term sustainability of essential water and wastewater services.

Weather and climate change impacts

So how are we responding?

The UK aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 (based on 1990 baseline) and should progress towards a low-carbon economy. However, a transition to a low (or no) carbon economy is not enough to address the challenges of climate change. Therefore, what we need to do is transition to a climate-resilient economy which can withstand or recover quickly from the unavoidable climate impacts in the short and long-term.

Thames Water is using twin track approach to address the challenges of climate change and become more climate-resilient. This includes managing the unavoidable impacts of climate change (‘adaptation’) combined with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (‘mitigation’).

Adaptation increases business resilience by being able to respond or recover while continuing to operate with limited impact on the business. Action has already been taken to improve resilience to risks, one example includes:

  • The Old Ford treatment plant on the Olympic Park turns sewage into non-drinkable water for gardens and flushing toilets. It provides enough water for up to 80,000 toilet flushes a day which helped to reduce reliance on tap water during the 2012 drought and the Olympics. This plant continues to help research into reclaimed water and securing future water supplies.

Mitigation contributes towards a low carbon economy by reducing GHG emissions. Thames Water already generates some of its own electricity renewably from sewage, solar panels and wind turbines. But there are further opportunities such as reducing embodied carbon. Instead of constructing new equipment, infrastructure and renewables to help treat water and wastewater, what opportunity is there, for example, to use natural systems?

  • Catchment management approaches could help improve water quality, reducing the need for intensive treatment processes which are carbon intensive and expensive to build and operate.
  • Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) and reedbeds can be used to collect, store and clean wastewater before releasing it back into the environment, avoiding the need to dig up roads and build new, large sewer systems and treatment plants.

Thames Water has focused on reducing emissions directly associated with treating and transporting water and wastewater and also continues to work with suppliers to reduce the carbon intensity of the services provided to help significantly reduce emissions further.

The need for a shift to a climate-resilient economy is compelling, not just for water and wastewater services but for the economy as a whole many other social, economic and environmental reasons. The transition though will be challenging and will require involvement of a number of local and global actors and throughout the supply chain, and with a fair contribution from all of them. Raising awareness of these issues and other businesses’ approaches to a climate-resilient economy is a first step to helping your own business transition by finding ways to take action.

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4 thoughts on “Transition to a sustainable economy to help to protect your water and wastewater services

Add yours

  1. Again – big fan.

    Perhaps the UK can become a world leader in understanding and exporting technologies/practices that allow companies to adapt to – or mitigate – the challenges of climate change.

    We all know that to really make a difference our best practices will need to be exported to the Far East and Sub-Saharan Africa, within the next 10 years, before further damage has potentially catastrophic effect.

    Growing populations and levels of education in these regions mean they’re like more receptive. Commercial opportunities will be abundant if companies like Thames Water can export their knowledge. This is a problem for the world – not just the UK.

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  2. Very interesting blog post with eye catching images accompanying it. Thames Water is right at the centre of this debate in the UK so great to see a selection of the projects they are undertaking to mitigate against climate change. It would be interesting to learn more about what public policy interventions Thames Water is undertaking to compliment its stance.

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  3. Hi there. The point about mitigation is critical and thanks for raising it.

    Water companies are very dependent on energy to treat water and pump it to and from their customers, costing them a lot of money and potentially impacting on the quality of their services. I recently learnt that about 1% of all energy consumed in the UK is to treat sewage, which means not just higher bills but also big carbon emissions. Water companies are some of the largest energy users in the UK through treating and pumping water and managing waste.

    So what else can be done? I’m no expert, but investing in more efficient kit must be a start. We have ageing Victorian infrastructure in the UK and need to invest to improve it. There must be some great innovation out there, but as a start, cutting down the c30% of water in the system that is leaked would be a start and would reduce emissions. How much R&D and investment is going on in the water companies? I’m sure it varies hugely, but is there a greater role for partnerships, whether through start-ups / VC incubators who might help disrupt and innovate or with large corporates from other sectors, perhaps with a more statistical and big data type lens?

    Water companies could also encourage industrial companies to reuse their effluent water. Water companies would thus have to supply, treat and pump less water, cutting energy use and avoiding the need to upgrade treatment works and networks.

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