Water Faces up to the Climate Change Challenge

Dan McCarthy is president and chief executive of Black & Veatch’s global water business. He has a vision to transform the structure of UK water provision in the face of increasing environmental challenges. Gareth Evans finds out more.

Dan McCarthy’s ultimate conclusion in his recent paper "Climate Change and the UK Water Industry: Stepping up to the challenge" was that there is no single cure for climate change where the water industry is involved. Instead, any solution is likely to come from all sectors working together on a cross-project basis.

In his view, compulsory metering is a matter of ‘if’ not ‘when’, as the issue of affordability becomes increasingly important. McCarthy argues for a deep infrastructure upgrade to meet the unpredictable challenges that will inevitably stem from a changing global climate. Instead of burying problems, he says, it is important to educate consumers about the fact that water scarcity is just as important as energy efficiency.

Gareth Evans: What were the main reasons you produced the paper?

Dan McCarthy: In February 2008, Black & Veatch sponsored a roundtable that brought together key stakeholders from the UK water industry to debate on the topic of climate change, and to discuss how various matters could be addressed by the sector. The paper is largely based upon the subjects raised during that debate.

It is an interesting paper that will stimulate discussion. Is your intention to get people talking about the challenges in general, or do you hope it may have a more specific outcome?

We wanted to broadly illustrate how climate change affects the UK water industry and bring the views of the sector to the attention of the general public.

We believe our position – serving all of the UK's water companies, as well as the industry's regulators – makes Black & Veatch well placed to provide such an overview of the situation. The paper was intended to allow informed debate rather than act as a call to action. However, I frequently raise a call to action to specific, appropriate audiences during my speeches and presentations.

Do you think the UK is more at risk from the sorts of problems you have described than other parts of Northern Europe?

The overarching concern here is that the nature of climate change is unpredictable and this means that across the globe, stakeholders in the water industry will all feel the impact of climate change in a slightly different way. There will also be regional differences and in the UK the impact varies between regions. But the uncertainties surrounding future weather patterns are common to all countries in Northern Europe.

Many people in Britain feel that between hosepipe bans and floods, much of the country’s problems come down to poor resource management by water companies. Do you feel that is a fair criticism and if so, what can be done to improve the situation?

All water companies have water resource management plans that have been approved by Ofwat, the industry regulator. Water companies have to cope with unprecedented changes in weather patterns taking place over a relatively short timescale and other unpredictable variables, and they are rising to that challenge. What I hope the paper makes clear is that this is a challenge that no single agency – the water companies included – can reasonably be expected to meet in isolation. We must form a united front to respond to the impact of climate change together.

Some have said that while new planning measures you mentioned in your paper will help, the real need is for a radical re-appraisal of flood plain developments. How do you view the UK’s obsession with building on flood plains – can it ever be done without compromising flood avoidance?

In populous areas of the UK, where free land is at a premium, the desire to build on floodplains is likely to continue. Good flood defences can expand the amount of land available for development. However, the unpredictability of future weather patterns means that risks can never be wholly removed. The decision to develop floodplains must be taken with caution and only when the alternatives have been thoroughly investigated.

The idea of a water grid resurfaces almost every time we have a drought in the UK but the cost of transporting water can be five times as much as desalination. With Thames Water building a 140 ml / day desalination plant in East London, do you think we will be seeing more British towns and cities meeting their water needs this way?

Water is heavy – a cubic metre weighs about a tonne – and it cannot be compressed. So even though it sounds simple to move water around the country as need requires by way of a national water grid, the idea is fraught with complexities, both practical and environmental.

Desalination is a vital tool for securing water supplies, but is not suitable for all communities. Many other tools are available to boost supplies, such as water re-use and regional transfers.

No one measure is suitable for all communities. Stakeholder consultation is the best way to ensure a sustainable solution.

The most viable of these will typically include a variety of measures including those to successfully reduce demand.

Britain’s water infrastructure is funded by domestic and business users’ bills. What effect do you think the problem of affordability will have on meeting the challenges ahead?

A plentiful supply of clean and affordable water is something many consumers take for granted in the UK, and the industry as a whole must work together to ensure that the provision of this essential service remains a possibility. If bills rise significantly, the subject of affordability will move up the agenda.

As a result, it is vital that those least able to pay are protected from increased bills. However, wise water use and attention to leak reduction need to be a focus for everyone.

As I hope the paper makes clear, the matter of affordability is complex and can be resolved only through multi-agency dialogue.

Interest is growing in the UK in rainwater harvesting and sustainable drainage among householders, the construction industry and water companies. With the continuing roll-out of metering seemingly inevitable, do you think the pressure to save money will be enough of an incentive to drive the uptake of these kinds of initiatives?

There is certainly a need to use less water. For this to happen on a successful scale will probably take a selection of carrots and sticks for the consumer.

As part of this approach, domestic and industrial customers need to be made aware of the importance of reducing their consumption and of the ways in which this can be achieved.

How do you see the role of Black & Veatch in meeting the water challenges the UK faces?

"Uncertainties surrounding future weather patterns are common to all countries in Northern Europe."

Black & Veatch works with most of the UK's water and sewerage companies, as well as with the water industry's environmental and economic regulators and the government departments that help frame the agenda within which the water sector operates. As a result, we have a comprehensive understanding of the problems that climate change poses for the sector in the UK and the other 100 countries on six continents where we work.

Broadly speaking we can help these organisations to measure and reduce their carbon footprints; we can help to manage water supplies through expertise in advanced water reuse systems, and we have the technical expertise to bring new water resources into supply. In addition, we have the know-how to assess flood risk and mitigate it through the design and construction of soft and hard flood defence systems.