This short analysis explores the way we use water in industry, how it is managed and presents a case study about how we can treat water differently so that the UK water industry can contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals for 2030.
The public supply of water in the UK is an established industry that has been very much business as usual for some time. The key question, therefore, is whether it is ‘future proof’. It is vital that we understand what will disrupt the status quo and what the disruptions will look like. There are many areas where the role of engineers in managing changing water supply needs will be critical, such as making cities function, the natural environment, sanitation, new water systems and efficiencies in industry.
In September 2015, the UK committed itself to the 2030 UN Sustainable Development goals. There are seventeen goals, with the sixth being to ensure availability and sustainable management of water for all. Drilling down within this goal further, two targets are especially interesting and pertinent for the UK water markets. These are:
“By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.”
“By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.”
Discussion and Conclusions
The UK Government needs to publish more up to date data.
It should seek to understand more clearly, through the collection of comprehensive UK data, how and where water in industry is being used. This data should then be adapted to data and knowledge sharing platforms. Such interaction will encourage sharing of best practice; highlight where efficiencies and environmental management can improve; and clarify what is being wasted and why. The Institution suggests that this should be done in collaboration with the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland leading to meaningful reductions in the use of water in manufacturing, energy and food production.
The UK Government and devolved administrations must raise the importance of water management.
Government has a key role in stimulating an industry to create disruptive innovations that can support an increasing population and reduce pollution to water courses. This should be done by including water in infrastructure developments more clearly and understanding the symbiosis of water with food, energy and waste infrastructures. The water industry is generally side-lined from development initiatives and merely expected to deliver when planning is complete. Government need to remind users that water resources are finite and should include the water industry in all national scale development discussions from concept stage to avoid unnecessary financial and environmental costs. Coordination could start from the current study by the UK Infrastructure Transition Research Consortium (ITRC) which highlights not just problem areas in each sector but, critically, their interconnectivity risks.
The UK Water Partnership needs a much higher profile outside the water industry.
As a public-private partnership it has a laudable aim to create growth and interest in the water markets associated with industry. It already uses innovative examples such as highlighted here to guide industry to more efficient, innovative and sustainable uses of water. In addition to supporting research, development, implementation, and export of technologies however it needs to engage UK consumers in the consequences of increasing consumption with erratic or reducing supply. It should also not shy away from calling for new legislation to reinforce positive externalities and help create supply chains around new innovations in both technologies and systems.
The Professional Engineering Institutions need to work much more in unison on water issues.
Of the 35 engineering Institutions registered with the Engineering Council at least 9 have an active interest in the water industry. These are:
- The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers
- The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering
- The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management
- The Institution of Agricultural Engineers
- The Institution of Civil Engineers
- The Institution of Chemical Engineers
- The Institution of Fire Engineers
- The Institution of Mechanical Engineers
- The Institute of Water
There is no record to date of them working together to raise the profile of engineering in the water industry. Without this unified voice it is difficult to see how new graduating engineers see the water sector as an exciting space where innovation and change are happening and that they can contribute to the future of life’s most vital resource.
Visit the Environment theme for more details about our policies.
Download the Challenges for Water Use in UK Industry report.