Three Steps to Global Water Resilience

Climate change has given rise to increasing numbers of droughts, floods and storms in recent years, and as they become more frequent, disruptive water events are also trending toward increased intensity. The need to make our water systems more resilient and adaptable is a matter of rising urgency. But what does resilience truly mean? And what steps can be taken to build water resilience across the globe?

According to new research exploring the economic consequences of water risk fueled by climate change through to 2050, droughts, floods and storms could wipe almost USD5.6 trillion from the GDP of eight countries studied.

One of the chief findings of the Aquanomics study is that risk varies depending on geographical region, as well as the predominant water uses and the primary industries active in that area. Building systems with the potential to reduce losses from storms, floods and droughts must be carefully assessed with a particular area’s vulnerabilities, existing infrastructure, and future needs in mind.

Reorienting our relationship with water.

It is time to move away from viewing water as a commodity to be controlled, instead recognising its intrinsic value as a natural, balanced cycle. We must work together to implement integrated solutions, optimising infrastructure that is already in place and working with nature to build different, more flexible assets.

Building resilience for the water industry is all about taking an agile approach, building over time and involving communities, valuing their knowledge both recent and ancient, and their participation in new solutions. Transformation will require radical collaboration across industry, as well as innovative policy solutions from government. Creating resilient water infrastructure will demand close partnerships between the public and private sectors.

As water risk increases, the need for action will grow. By focusing on economic impacts, Aquanomics points the way to unlocking the social and environmental benefits of tackling water risk early and head-on. In highlighting risk, the study showcases lessons that can be drawn from countries and regions that are successfully adapting and mitigating their risk, providing guidance to help build resilience in water systems across the globe.

Building water resilience

Water risk is diverse, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for improving resilience. Adaptation and mitigation efforts in regions facing severe water scarcity will be different from those in areas where the greatest risk is posed by over-abundance through flooding and storm events.

In the past, the answer to water challenges was to build big — creating centralised infrastructure scaled-up to as much as five times the size of current demand, intended to keep pace with community need for over a century. But building for resilience means we can no longer predominantly rely on implementing costly, large-scale infrastructure interventions. Instead, governments, businesses, communities and the water sector must take a long-term strategic view of resource management, focusing on three key principles:

Adapt – build resilience into new projects
The industry needs to be able to rapidly adapt to evolving risk. Adopting an adaptive management model using smaller and even temporary investments - with 10-and 20-year horizons - will allow for more flexibility.
Eureka, California, for example, recently developed a long-term vision for its storm water management, with an eye to ensuring positive environmental impacts in the region. The plan examined water quality, stormwater management and the possible implications of sea water rise. The priority was to identify low-impact projects to reduce surface run off while preventing pollution of waterways.
Holistic plans weigh long term factors, even when implementing short-term solutions. This can ensure that strategies implemented now do not hinder a community’s ability to benefit from technological advances or adapt to challenges in the future.
Optimise – improve resilience and performance of existing infrastructure with advanced technologies and data driven insights.
Improving the efficiency and responsiveness of water systems has the potential to be a game changer in boosting resilience. Smart devices and sensors allow utilities to monitor assets in real-time, enabling more effective maintenance and managing capacity for example when floods occur. This saves money and informs decisions about where to direct future investment.
The Humber Treatment Plant in Ontario, Canada is embarking on one such asset renewal program for the aeration blowers that are the lungs of the wastewater treatment facility — and which have reached the end of their useful lives. The installation of energy efficient blowers will achieve the goal of extending the life of the entire plant, preventing a critical system failure and lowering its carbon footprint. The new blowers will be sequenced and operated based on process needs, ensuring maximum efficiency and helping achieve energy savings that are projected to be about 30% of current levels.
Australia, meanwhile, has looked at every wastewater treatment plant in the country to examine the opportunities for reuse of that water for agricultural purposes or, potentially, for generating hydrogen for the energy industry.
Prioritise - put regenerative and nature-based solutions first. A circular economy approach to water management is crucial.
The water industry is naturally a circular industry and has been operating in partial circularity for decades, through end-of-line, biosolid and waste-to-energy solutions. Now, new thinking has the potential to apply circular principles throughout the lifecycle of operations and beyond, connecting the water industry to the broader economy to unlock more sustainable, whole-of-community outcomes. By looking beyond the boundaries of individual assets and organisations, we can discover opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships with other sectors.
For example, reuse and circularity can be especially effective in cities, where reused water can be repurposed after recycling to nearby hydrogen production facilities and urban greening projects. Ideally, this eliminates the need to pump water long distances, an expensive process that comes with a high energy — and therefore a high carbon — cost. Strategic planning determines the most opportune and economically beneficial uses for recycled water. This is important as — given its capacity to generate income, offsetting new investments in capacity — recycled water will face ever-higher demand.
By focusing on water recycling and working within nature’s cycle we can improve the long-term sustainability of water infrastructure while reducing costs. Benefits for communities and customers may include reliable service, swifter recovery from high-impact water events and continued ability to affordably insure homes and businesses.
Some places are already developing systems that mimic the natural water cycle. Australia will soon build a billion-dollar wastewater treatment system in Upper South Creek, Sydney, implementing circular economy initiatives to recycle water for urban and industrial uses. Across the world in California, Google has committed to reaching a target of net positive water use for its next two Silicon Valley campuses.
How we respond to increasing water risk is going to be critical to our future health, prosperity and quality of life. Acting to transform our water systems is not something we can delay or take on in isolation; collaborative action must be taken today.
Making changes now will help avert the forecast hard economic losses – and flow-on socio-economic consequences – to set us up for a resilient and more equitable water future.