Water is our most precious resource. Its infrastructure is critical for every aspect of life while water-related investments are a major element of countries’ capital assets. In this special feature, Ricardo Plc looks at some of the global challenges and opportunities around the supply, treatment, storage and transportation of H2O.
Why hydro-politics will shape our future
1995 Dr Ismail Serageldin, the founding director of Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt and then vice-president of the World Bank, made a dramatic prediction: “If the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil,” he declared, “the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.”
At the time of Serageldin’s statement, tensions due to major upstream dam construction and extraction on the Nile threatened the water security of millions of people. Since then, pollution, flooding, drought, conflict, population growth and lifestyle demands have contributed to a situation where, by 2030, 47 per cent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress.
This may seem extraordinary given that water covers 70 per cent of the earth’s surface. However, fresh water comprises only three per cent – and two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers or otherwise unavailable.
Climate change is fundamentally changing patterns of weather and water around the world, with floods in some places and droughts in others. More than half the world’s wetlands have disappeared while agriculture is both a heavy consumer and a heavy waster of water through inefficient irrigation.
“the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious resource”
“In some countries we are seeing legal action against large companies or agricultural concerns that have exploited water abstraction rights previously enjoyed by local communities,” says Helen Gavin, Ricardo’s Associate Director for Water. “They are causing groundwater levels to fall and aquifers to become dry. If the word ‘war’ is too emotive, then ‘ignition point’ is certainly appropriate.”
In the UK, according to the Royal Geographical Society, the average citizen’s daily ‘water footprint’ is 3,500 litres1. However only 150 litres of that is consumed in the home with the rest hidden in the irrigation, manufacturing, processing and packaging of everyday products, some originating from regions already at risk from drought or water stress.
As Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, put it in her foreword to ‘Meeting our future water needs: a national framework for water resources’, published in 2020: ‘If we don’t take action many areas of England will face water shortages by 2050. An increasing population, demand from agriculture and industry and improving our resilience to drought will all put significant pressures on our water resources. The climate emergency – periods of hotter and drier weather – will only exacerbate these pressures.’
“the global volume of non-revenue water has been estimated to be 346 million m3 per day2“
Testing the waters – the global challenges
“Bigger, denser towns and cities bring problems because of urbanisation,” says Ricardo’s Helen Gavin. “Urbanisation means more hard, impermeable surfaces which water can’t infiltrate, or the water is channelled in such a way that the volume and flow exceed the capacity of receiving watercourses or soakaway. So there’s a snowball effect, causing flooding downstream.
“When this happens there is little recharge of local groundwater or water tables. So you have this double whammy effect: more hard surfaces increase the flooding risk and impact and reduce the ability of the local environment to store water and maintain water levels.”
Gavin points to Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) as a way forward: “Sustainable drainage is a move away from the traditional approach of designing only to manage flood risk, where water run-off is regarded as a problem, to surface water being treated as a valuable resource and managed for maximum benefit. In the UK, for instance, any new development needs to be able to capture and store water arising from it so the water can sink into the ground.”
SuDS take account of water quantity (flooding), quality (pollution), biodiversity (wildlife and plants) and amenity. They’re a suite of components working in different ways: to enable water to soak into the ground, flow into a watercourse, sewer or on-site storage, and to slow down flows.2
“Water isn’t valued as much as it should be,” says Gavin. “Globally, we suck it out the ground and use it for something that gives economic return, with minimal thought for the effects of over-abstraction or the increased salinisation or desertification of land.”
The UK has sought to reduce the number of abstraction licences where there is an environmental impact. Chalk rivers, for example, are our equivalent of the rainforest – an extremely rare habitat supporting immense biodiversity and prized for the high quality of the water. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s chalk streams are in England, with 29 per cent in East Anglia. Most water drunk in the east of England comes from rainwater stored in natural chalk aquifers which feed the streams.
“For obvious reasons,” Gavin explains, “abstraction has taken place since the 1800s when private water companies started to take water and sell it to customers. However, our chalk rivers now face major challenges as a result of over-abstraction, climate change and population growth.”
“sewage overflows and agricultural run-off are the two major sources of pollution for our rivers”
In 2021, the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA; catchmentbasedapproach.org) – an initiative bringing together Government, local authorities, water companies and businesses – published a chalk stream strategy setting out actions and recommendations on water resources, quality, habitat restoration and management. CaBA is working in all 100-plus river catchments across England and cross-border with Wales to support the Government’s ‘25 Year Environment Plan’.
Published in 2018, the Plan included the ambition to reduce the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, with the aim that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards increased from 82 per cent to 90 per cent for surface water bodies and from 72 per cent to 77 per cent for groundwater bodies.
This year’s monitoring report on the UK Government’s ‘25 Year Environment Plan’ found progress ‘too slow’ and environmental ‘tipping points’ fast approaching, where gradual decline suddenly becomes catastrophic including collapsed fisheries and dead, polluted rivers.
Gavin highlights the issue of sewer overflows: “Water companies are permitted to overflow partially treated or untreated sewage into waterways when sewage treatment works can’t cope with the increased volumes of wastewater now entering the sewer system. This should be a rare event. But it’s actually become a frequent occurrence. Sewage overflows and agricultural run-off are the two major sources of pollution for our rivers.”
Ricardo is contracted by a number of UK water companies to respond to pollution incidents and also to support the development of Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMPs). Announced by the UK Government earlier this year, water and sewerage companies must produce 25-year DWMPs looking at current and future capacity; pressures and risks to their networks such as climate change and population growth; and how these challenges will be managed through their business plans in partnership with other risk management authorities or drainage asset owners.
The production of DWMPs will be made statutory through the Environment Act, with companies required to produce draft plans for consultation in 2022 and final plans in 2023.
How Ricardo is keeping the water flowing
Ricardo has framework agreements with many of the largest UK companies – including Southern Water, United Utilities, Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water, Yorkshire Water, Thames Water and Bristol Water – to support their long-term planning for sustainable water resources. Ricardo’s services include strategic environmental assessments, terrestrial and aquatic ecology surveys, habitats regulations assessments and water framework directive assessments. Here are some of the projects that Ricardo is involved in worldwide.
Severn-Thames Transfer project
Experts from Ricardo’s Water practice are supporting one of the strategic water resource schemes to meet supply and demand pressures and bolster drought resilience in south-east England by transferring raw water from the lower catchment of the River Severn to the upper reaches of the Thames. Developed by Thames Water, Severn Trent Water and United Utilities, the scheme could deliver up to 500 million litres of water per day through new interconnectors.
Such an ambitious water transfer project is not unique: a transfer from the Midlands to the south-east using the canal network is being investigated by Severn Trent Water and Affinity Water in partnership with the Canal and Rivers Trust.
Net Zero 2030 Roadmap Ricardo and Mott MacDonald collaborated to create the Net Zero 2030 Roadmap for trade association Water UK, setting out how the industry must cut its current 10 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. The water industry was the first sector in the UK to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2030. The roadmap highlights:
- Major investment by the sector in renewable energy generation over the last 30 years, maximising use of biogas and biomethane.
- A commitment by water companies to build on a one-third reduction in leakage since the 1990s; triple leakage reduction by 2030; and develop plans to reduce by a fifth the average amount of water used per person by 2050.
- A national shift towards refilling water bottles through the Refill campaign. Bottled water is around 900 times more carbon intensive than tap water per litre and generates plastic waste. The industry has helped to increase the number of free refill stations from 1,500 in 2017 to more than 26,000 today. The sector has also committed to preventing the equivalent of four billion plastic bottles ending up as waste by 2030.
Agricultural irrigation in Australia
The Australian consultancy Inside Infrastructure, acquired by Ricardo earlier this year, specialises in water resource management for government and industry bodies, working across strategy, regulation and policy, planning, technical assessment, investment appraisal and asset management.
Recent contracts include delivery of the business case for the Northern Adelaide Irrigation Scheme (NAIS) – a once-in-a-generation opportunity for agribusinesses to secure reliable, climate-independent water at stable prices under long-term agreements.
The water will irrigate crops to satisfy demand from booming export markets for quality South Australian produce. NAIS water will aid the development of more than 300 hectares of hightechnology horticulture and a further 2,700 hectares of advanced agri-food production.3
Why green hydrogen needs water
Green hydrogen is manufactured using electrolysis that is powered by renewable energy, thus incurring no greenhouse gas emissions from its production. The need to develop green hydrogen infrastructure is widely considered to be essential for leading economies to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.
There are claims, however, that a future hydrogen economy could have an impact on the water industry. Water UK’s Net Zero 2030 Roadmap states: ‘If hydrogen emerges as an alternative fuel then water demand would increase 15 to 20 per cent’.
Pure water is critical for hydrogen fuel production with around five metric tons required per day for every megawatt of electrolyser capacity. This raises the question of how water for hydrogen would be sourced and be made available in the right place, at the right time, and in the right amounts.
A report by Norwegian energy consultancy Rystad Energy has further insisted that nearly 85 per cent of the green hydrogen capacity in the global pipeline may need to source its water from desalination as the vast majority of projects due to be built by 2040 are in water-stressed countries such as Spain, Chile and Australia. Desalination of sea water or brackish groundwater requires additional renewable energy, potentially increasing the overall cost.
“This is a somewhat pessimistic outlook,” says Alec Davies, a Ricardo Energy and Environment consultant specialising in hydrogen. “Our modelling of energy flows and water requirements for a typical offshore green hydrogen plant, for example, shows that the power required for a desalinator is only a small fraction of the total. The uplift in the levelised cost of the hydrogen might be around five per cent – which is a comparatively small addition if it means avoiding any impact on local water resources.”
This view is supported by a recent survey from the International Renewable Energy Agency which claims the increase in levelised cost (the price at which the generated hydrogen should be sold for the plant to break even at the end of its lifetime) due to water desalination for multi-gigawatt green hydrogen projects in countries such as Mauritania, Namibia, Saudi Arabia and Oman could actually be less than four per cent.
Hydrogen’s potential as an offshore technology is certainly recognised closer to home. Davies cites projects in East Anglia exploring the potential for hydrogen as part of an ambition to become the UK’s Clean Growth Region. One project, led by Hydrogen East, is exploring the potential for offshore hydrogen production as part of the Bacton Energy Hub – which is a combination of carbon storage technology, blue and green hydrogen production and collaboration with the offshore wind sector. “Given Norfolk is one of the UK’s driest counties, desalination is an option being considered here too by the local water companies,” he adds.
In another example of how the production of hydrogen could be accelerated by the water sector, Water UK’s Net Zero 2030 Roadmap cites research from Australia that shows potential capital and operational benefits from co-locating the production of hydrogen on wastewater treatment sites and using the oxygen by-product to aerate activated sludge processes.