Washing our hands has never been more important as we work to stop the spread of coronavirus. So, imagine turning on your tap right now and nothing comes out.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought many issues to the surface, including the inescapable connection between our environment, our physical health and our global economies. It has also highlighted the importance of something that many of us take for granted – access to clean, fresh water. The United Nations estimates that, in the world today, one in three people live without clean drinking water and – by the year 2050 – up to 5.7 billion could be living in areas where water is scarce at least one month a year.
The simple truth: ALL life on Earth needs water to survive. While about three-quarters of the surface of our planet is covered in water, only about 3% is fresh water and that’s why responsible management of our streams, rivers, lakes, rainwater, and groundwater is so important.
No one can control when or where rain falls, but we all expect water to be available the moment we turn on that tap. Think about everything that’s needed to make that happen: dams, canals, levees, urban drainage systems, rainwater harvesting, pumps, pipes, storage and water treatment facilities, as well as the engineering, design, construction, and maintenance to keep them operable.
Infrastructure is key
Yet, obstacles exist. In the United States, funding for water infrastructure is insufficient and not prioritised. Regardless of geography, city managers and elected officials focus more on higher visibility infrastructure, such as transportation. For the water sector, that means a thin budget to keep everything in working order. Funding for capital maintenance and investment can also be a challenge elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, for example, increasingly stringent fiscal controls have emerged for water operators in the latest asset management period (AMP7) that started April 2020. For developing countries, where water infrastructure is desperately needed, the challenges are even tougher.
Water operators and the communities they serve, need reliable, resilient and cost-effective ways to manage water and wastewater. One of the newer areas seeing great success is digital twin technology. Wood began offering digital twinning to our water clients in 2019, following outstanding outcomes for energy clients with complex and interconnected assets.
Capital projects always risk losing time and money during the commissioning phase. By using digital twinning to predict and test scenarios during commissioning, and devising appropriate solutions in the digital arena, substantial efficiencies can be achieved. It can also increase confidence in the planned design and provide seamless digital integration into the asset build and operate phases as well as the wider water network, optimising the asset lifecycle and the wider water value chain.
Nature can help, too
Another major focus of ours is improving the sustainability of freshwater resources. It means engineering and implementing solutions that reduce flooding, eliminate combined sewer overflows and enable communities to implement better and more effective stormwater management without costly infrastructure upgrades. Quite simply, it’s about managing rainwater where it falls – by capturing, absorbing or storing it – so that nature can do the rest of the work.
One of the ways we’re doing this for our clients is through the design and construction of green infrastructure from small towns to major metropolitan areas. Success has little to do with the size of the community, but rather the soil types that are found there. Sandy soils are best because they have the highest permeability.
How effective is it? In a recent pilot project involving re-directing the runoff from paved surfaces into green stormwater planters with native plants and trees, we were able to intercept and infiltrate an estimated 4.5 million litres of surface runoff in two city blocks before it reached the combined sewer system. Natural solutions are increasingly important to creating resilient infrastructure as the impact and frequency of extreme weather events increases.
Expanding populations also mean larger cities and an urgent need to rethink flood management. In many cases, this is prompting communities of all sizes to reinvest in the restoration of natural habitats and their freshwater resources, like streams, rivers and lakes. By restoring these natural environments, it is also enabling us to uncover – or even rediscover – valuable recreational resources for our communities, as well as unexpected co-benefits, like urban renewal, the return of businesses and even local jobs.
The challenges of providing individuals with easy access to clean water cannot be taken for granted, in either developed or developing countries. Natural and digital solutions like those Wood are realising for our water clients help unlock value and ensure reliability, but investment in water infrastructure remains crucial. Now, as governments look to restart their economies, greater funding for water projects can ensure the availability of sustainable water resources for all people, especially those that need it the most.
Learn more about how Wood is helping businesses and communities respond, reshape and prepare for the future.
Andy Clevenger PE
Principal – VP, Global Technical Lead for Water and Wastewater
Water Sector Director, EII