Engineers warn that climate change will mean escalating costs for UK’s water industry

Water treatment plants will have to run at peak flow rates for longer, companies will need to increase the pace of pipework replacement and greater investment in drainage systems will be vital due to expected rises in droughts and floods, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) says.

Findings in group’s latest report entitled “Water: Drought and Flood” outlines a number of recommendations for the UK water industry as climate change is set to have a bigger impact and say on how the sector operates. 

The institution supports a “systems thinking” approach to water management as highlighted in regulator Ofwat’s report, “Resilience in the Round", which was released in 2017 and identifies the linkages between many aspects of urban life – physical, social and economic.

The report warns how longer and hotter summers will raise maintenance and running costs as well as energy consumption due to water treatment plants needing to run at peak flow rates for longer. It also says how expected larger flooding will mean authorities needing to set aside funding for drainage systems in urban areas.

With a lack of policies and strategies focused on both hot, dry weather together with flooding, the IMechE is calling for a new water infrastructure sustainability plan created by not just the water industry but with the support of Water UK and the National Infrastructure Committee.

Commenting on the report, Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of Engineering at IMechE and the report’s lead author, said: “We need to make people aware of the value of water as a resource. Consumers need to understand the challenges of managing water in more extreme environments and the increased costs that water companies will face running treatment plants at higher flow rates as well as reducing leakage. Sustainable drainage and water recycling systems along with reducing water use are all part of the solution of helping us adapt to climate change.”

Furthermore, the group of engineers also believe that major UK cities should publish research on what their infrastructure needs are in relation to water and a government-led advertisement campaign should be ran to ensure homeowners and businesses are aware of how to build resilience within their properties. 

Recommendations submitted by IMechE in the report:

  1.  UK cities should publish research on water infrastructure. The group say water is a limited resource and infrastructure for new-build homes and businesses should be designed and developed with increased extreme weather in mind. 
  2. UK government should run a public awareness campaign on the value of water and consequences of our changing climate. This could include what householders and businesses need to do to build resilience into their properties, in order to mitigate the impacts from poor drainage when periods of dry weather end this year, and in future years.
  3. The water industry, with the support of Water UK and the National Infrastructure Committee, creates a forum of water-intensive industries and the water companies create a water infrastructure sustainability plan for UK industry that combines drought and flood. It is crucial that supply exceeds demand not just by ever increasing production, but instead by mitigating use in a similar way to the electricity grid which has clients on interruptible contracts.
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