The way water is managed in the UK is beginning to change, as we edge towards a new era of collaboration, with different sectors and industries working together to develop a more robust and resilient infrastructure.
It’s a change born of necessity, as Britain faces up to new demands for water created by an ever-growing population, while at the same time dealing with the paradox of periods of severe droughts, interspersed with spells of diluvian rainfall.
Add to this dwindling public finances, which can ill-afford to pay for the flood defences parts of the country so desperately needed – let alone new reservoirs – and as Mike Cook, head of water resources at Anglian Water, says: “Collaborative planning seems to be a sensible way to go.”
According to Peter Start, a director at real estate consultants Savills, this collaborative approach is already taking shape on various levels. Start has a special interest in rural issues, working on estates covering millions of acres.
“The use of water is an important part of the advice we supply to clients,” he says. “The impact of water and water stewardship is something we’ve seen change dramatically over the past 25 years.”
Start has worked with farmers and estate owners engaged in collaborative approaches to creating reservoirs. “These are then used to feed water to a number of different farming businesses,” he says.
He’s also seen new partnerships developed in areas of the UK at risk of flooding, with local authorities, landowners and communities working together to maintain and strengthen sea walls, filling the gaps left by the absence of state funding.
Normally, he says, there would have been objections from one party or another to elements of the project, but this is different. “They’ve decided that this is the best way forward to deal with flood risk,” he says.
This collective approach is also being adopted on a much larger scale, explains Cook.
Following the last major drought in 2010/11, Anglian Water drew up plans with Severn Trent Water and the Canal and River Trust to use the canal network to move water to depleted reservoirs. “It was worked up into a study which could be implemented as soon as water quality risks are fully understood and managed,” he says.
An even bigger scheme is Water Resources East Anglia (WREA), a multi-sector approach to future water management covering a vast area stretching from the Humber down to London, and from the east coast across to the Midlands. Cook explains that the project is looking at a host of issues, such as how to manage climate change, use water more sustainably and create a greater resilience to drought.
A third project, developed in association with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), is looking at new ideas around managing a major river catchment area in north Norfolk.
In the UK, the private sector serves the water needs of more people then anywhere in the EU, says Dr Gemma Cranston, programme manager at CPSL, with 90% of the population relying on private companies for water, and 93% for sewerage.
So, she argues, doesn’t it make sense to find financial and governance mechanisms that incentivise the private sector to invest more in water-catchment management?
The ground-breaking project is bringing together a range of different stakeholders, including the water industry, agriculture, industry and regulators, to investigate new ways to plan and finance the demand for water.
“It’s about coming up with different ways of managing concerns over water stress and scarcity,” says Cook. “Agriculture is certainly very concerned about the impact of climate change and drought, so what we are looking at is options of working together to create new upstream resources.”
The catchment scheme is one of two “lighthouse projects” being run by CPSL, with the other addressing the flip side of the coin: flooding. Over 300,000 business premises in the UK and five million homes are currently at risk, yet state funding to protect them has all but dried up.