Don't forget the basics: The importance of water in the urbanisation debate

Water is key to smart and sustainable cities”. Phill Mills, Policy Consulting Network Ltd and Chair of the ICE Water Panel, explores the importance of water in determining the fate of our future urban spaces.

Reservoir structures between Granada and Murcia, the dryest areas of Spain and Europe. London is already classified as being under
Reservoir structures between Granada and Murcia, the dryest areas of Spain and Europe. London is already classified as being under 'serious water stress'.
  • Updated: 27 June 2016

ICE recently published its Thought Leadership pamphlet on Urbanisation. Its aim is to explore issues within the urbanisation debate and identify solutions over the next 12 months to the challenges raised. Its focus initially is on

  • Housing
  • Land use
  • Transport
  • Technology

I agree, good affordable housing, ‘place-making’, reliable rapid and modern transport links and technology, whether for fast home broadband or sensors for managing city systems are all key considerations going forward.

But what of one of our basic human needs – Water. Before publication, ICE sought views from the public on their priorities for their cities. Water, it seems, wasn’t high on the public’s agenda. And there’s a reason for that. We all take it for granted. It’s a 24/7 service and for most us it’s relatively cheap at just over £1 a day.

But there’s a big risk in taking Water for granted. And by Water I mean the three interlinked aspects:

  • a safe and reliable supply of drinking water,
  • the removal and disposal of our wastewater without polluting our environment, and
  • the protection of our properties from flooding from storm-water.

Population growth and changing weather patterns

The UK population is expected to increase from 65m to 70m by 2017 (ONS). By 2024 London, the fastest growing region is expected to increase by over 13% from 8.5m to 9.7m. The next fastest growing regions will be the East and the South East. All these three regions are classified by the Environment Agency as regions of ‘serious water stress’.

According to the Government’s Climate Change Risk Assessment - as a result of warming, there is a greater likelihood that summers will be drier and extremely wet winters could become up to 5 times more likely over the next 100 years.

The combination of increasing populations in urban areas together with changing weather patterns leads to a ‘perfect storm’ of increasing demand coupled with decreasing supply.

Risk of drought

The 2012 drought in the South East and East of England was a wake up call. Whilst we had temporary use bans (aka hose pipe bans) in force, we avoided the more severe restrictions of essential use bans that would have directly impacted business and our economy. We only avoided those more severe restrictions because storms came with intense rainfall and led to major flooding. The probability of receiving that rainfall was subsequently assessed at 3%.

I touched on the impact on business. Thames Water estimated that essential use restriction in London would have cost the city and hence the UK economy £4-£9.5m each day. The worst-case scenario and highest level restrictions with rota cuts and temporary supplies would have cost over £230m/day or around £7bn a month.

The lesson, and not just for London, is we can’t forget Water. We need to capture and store winter rainfall, just like the Victorian engineers did. But that alone is unlikely to be enough. We will need other solutions as well – rainwater harvesting, reduced leakage from company and customers’ pipes, homes and businesses that are more water efficient and even effluent re-use.

Flooding and pollution

Increasing populations in urban areas mean more wastewater to collect and treat, and more hard surfacing, which in turn means less rainwater infiltrating into the ground, so more surface water to take away.

Not having sufficient capacity in either of those has a direct impact on a city’s growth and development. Under-capacity at a treatment works will mean discharge consents not met and failure to comply with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. Under-capacity in the sewer network will mean flooding of property and/or pollution of watercourses or beaches, again failing environmental consents.

There are two notable examples in the UK where flooding and pollution, or the risk of either, have had a direct impact on the growth and economic development of a city – Glasgow and Belfast. Glasgow is now addressing this through the Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership – a multiple partner £1.2billion infrastructure investment. In Belfast they are planning the ‘Living with Water Programme’, estimated at £750m and starting in 2020.


Water is key to smart and sustainable cities. Too little or too much has a major impact on public health, the desirability of that city to be a place to live or work in and on its economic development. How we use and manage Water, in all its forms, must therefore be a key element in our considerations of future cities and the urban agenda.

Growing cities and building resilience

Find out more about ICE's work exploring the challenges that mass urbanisation poses to city infrastructure. Let us know your opinions by joining the debate in our comments section