From intense droughts to flash floods – how can we break this cycle?

The droughts we’re seeing across the UK are coming hand-in-hand with intense periods of rainfall, thunderstorms and flash flooding. In this column, Mike Ward, UK & Ireland Territory Director at global plumbing and drainage manufacturer, Wavin, explains why dealing with the water crisis and updating our infrastructure is key to climate resilience.

The link between droughts and flash flooding is something we must lend much greater consideration to as our seasonal weather patterns become more extreme. The combination of dry, impenetrable soil caused by drought and the hard surfaces we create with our expanding urban areas forms a perfect storm, which leaves deluges with nowhere to go.

In the UK particularly, this is leading to significant pressure on our water infrastructure, much of which dates back to the Victorian era and was originally built to support cities and societies which are a fraction of the size they are now.

Something has got to give, and it’s extremely unlikely this is going to be the climate.

Liquid gold

With British rivers flowing at their lowest levels in two decades [1], Europe experiencing what could turn into its worst drought for 500 years, and Chinese companies suspending work due to a shortage of hydropower caused by the Yangtze River drying up, it’s clear we need to change the way we think about water.

In the UK, when the rain does come, it’s increasingly falling in torrential bursts which quickly overwhelm critical infrastructure and does little to relieve the water stress caused by drought. Why? Because our current infrastructure is built to take water for granted; if it cannot be used immediately, it is diverted promptly out of our cities, and opportunities are spurned to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

With extreme weather events set to become more frequent, our linear view of water – from source, to use through to disposal – is no longer sustainable.

Sustainable, cyclical systems

There is a collective responsibility among the Government, water and utilities companies, local authorities, designers, researchers, manufacturers and public bodies to make sure we update our infrastructure to address this change in demand and change in thinking. Unfortunately, at the current rate of construction, replacing the UK’s pipework could take 2,000 years [2].

Alongside a greater sense of urgency from all stakeholders, we also need to approach the task of updating our infrastructure with a renewed understanding of the value of water. This means championing cyclical use, where this valuable commodity is re-used, filtered, or returned to the ground according to where we need it most. Every natural system is connected, as illustrated clearly by the relationship between drought and flooding. We can break this vicious cycle by creating one that will benefit us, where the individual and separate systems of flood and drought management become a circular strategy that support one another.

This also requires a concerted effort from industry to provide the tools to make this change. It means developing and improving products, greater collaboration throughout the supply chain, and an emphasis on creating sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) that are built to last. These should be holistic, comprising natural water filtration elements such as ponds and swales where possible, alongside purpose-built solutions like attenuation tanks, tree pits and more permeable paving. This will ensure a robust line of defence against stormwater, even on the back of droughts, helping to mitigate the impact of climate change while also building systems that will continue to do their jobs long into the future.

Loveable, liveable cities

Wavin has this change at the heart of its vision and purpose: to build healthy, sustainable environments. Making this a reality requires an understanding of how we can best promote and inspire the change we want to see in the industry, while celebrating the pioneers of technology and solutions that will enable us to keep our cities loveable and liveable.

To this end, we recently hosted the Water Futures Challenge in collaboration with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), engaging the next generation of engineers to help solve the UK’s water crisis, and creating a new ‘Water Futures Ambassador’.

The challenge asked junior engineers and students across the country to submit innovative, cutting-edge solutions to some of the UK’s most pressing water issues, flash flooding, increased rainfall, river pollution, and inefficient buildings.

The winning entry, Can My Pipe Handle It?, was shared by Leeds University’s engineering student, Amrie Singh. She has proposed a new, more accurate way of mapping flooding while also measuring the hydraulic capacity of our drainage systems. If realised, this approach could help us better understand where we need to prioritise infrastructure development.

Amrie will now become the ICE’s first Water Futures Ambassador, helping represent the next generation of engineers at top tables discussing how to deal with both floods and droughts.

It is this type of innovative, forward-thinking that we need to promote, which will help us to redefine our approach to water. It is time to stop taking water for granted, build the infrastructure we need to deal with the challenges of tomorrow, or we’ll forever be chasing our tails when it comes to the water crisis.

For more information about Wavin, visit: https://www.wavin.com/en-gb/

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/26/river-flow-rate-england-water-drought-environment-data

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/23/water-companies-in-england-expecting-sewers-to-last-2000-years

SourceWavin

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