Unchecked growth in water use could destabilise Britain’s economy, warns a report published by an alliance of leading engineering bodies including the ICE last week.
The study says that over two thirds of the UK’s water use is now effectively imported in the form of water used to produce and transport food, clothes and energy.
The Engineering the Future alliance which carried out the study includes the ICE, the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), and the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM).
Its report says that “hidden water” used in manufacturing and transport is putting more stress on already water-deprived countries. Global Water Security − an engineering perspective warns that the UK’s over-reliance on imported water jeopardises future water security in the UK and creates imbalances in power between nations.
It also highlights that in future water costs might have to rise to reflect its value above and beyond maintenance and infrastructure costs.
“There is no single silver bullet for water security. Reducing demand will be important, but so will developing engineering solutions .”
Professor Peter Guthrie
“If the water crisis becomes critical it will pose a serious threat to the UK’s development because of the impact on our access to vital resources,” said Engineering the Future working group chairman professor Peter Guthrie. “Food prices would sky-rocket and economic growth would suffer,” he continued.
A report published in March by the World Bank says that 700M people in 43 countries were now beginning to feel the effects of water shortages. Water stress is defined as an annual supply of water below 1,700m³ per person.
The study points to the UK’s increasing consumption of meat as one of the contributing factors in water shortages. It is estimated that 1kg of beef requires 15,500 litres of water to produce, more than 10 times the amount required to produce 1kg of wheat.
The UK trend for buying large quantities of cheap clothing is another factor. A t-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water to produce. The high consumption of water embedded in everyday products is not unique to the UK, but the report suggests that the UK must lead the efforts of developed nations to curb its “water footprint”.
Government chief scientific advisor professor John Beddington has stressed that water supplies affect economic growth, energy security, food supply and healthcare.
The interdependence of these elements could create a “perfect storm” leading to global instability if the problem is not addressed, he says.
The report criticises governments which “often view the water sector as purely the utility operators and neglect the water resource.”
UK water regulator Ofwat recently ordered UK water companies to produce a 25 year forward view. While this was welcomed by the report, it also mentioned that the results “focused in reality only on the companies’ investment plans”.
The report urged the government and engineers to develop new and sustainable sources of water. Desalination is becoming widespread and includes projects such as the forthcoming £2.3bn Victorian Desalination Plant in Wonthaggi, Australia. However, the report was wary of desalination, warning that the process is “currently extremely energy intensive” and “not a sustainable solution”.
“[Governments] often view the water sector as purely the utility operators and neglect the water resource.”
Engineering the Future report
As water is traditionally regarded as a free resource, water costs are usually associated with the cost of processing and delivery, says the Engineering the Future report. An actual “value” is rarely attributed to water itself.
The report states that there is growing interest internationally in the use of water pricing. As well as generating revenue to fund the provision of water supplies and the maintenance of infrastructure, it is thought that the move could reduce consumer demand.
Other options suggested by the engineering alliance include managing existing sources to provide potential for the storage of excess flows during floods, sustainable use of groundwater and better understanding of aquifers.
Given the threat to water supply security, particularly in developing countries, the UK government should put water at the centre of its international development policy, the report recommended. It also said water supply protection should be assimilated into climate change mitigation policy.
“There is no single silver bullet for water security. Reducing demand will be important, but so will developing engineering solutions to create new, sustainable sources of water and efficiency in current practices,” said Guthrie.
He told NCE that it was up to the engineering community to drive solutions. “The global water security report gives a strong profile for the role that engineers can and must play in resolving water issues around the world.
“There are many technical contributions that engineers can make, but these need to be set in the wider context of what is achievable, appropriate and sustainable.”
Engineers must work to increase our awareness of the issue says the report.
Key recommendations from the report
● Improve climate modelling to help predict water scarcity
● Engineers and policy makers must engage with communities, with society and with industry to increase awareness
● Engineers’ professional qualifications should be evaluated to ensure there is an understanding of methods of conserving water
● International governance and regulation to ensure that localised responses to water supply do not adversely affect other areas
● “Cloud to coast” water management systems that address the entire water system should be considered
● An emphasis on reducing agricultural water usage, which accounts for 70% of water demand