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How can the UK protect its water assets in a heatwave?

12 April 2023

An ICE member shares guidance based on his experience working in the water industry in the extreme Qatari heat.

How can the UK protect its water assets in a heatwave?
Heatwaves are one of the effects of climate change. Image credit: Nicolas Economou/Shutterstock

Heatwaves are just one of the many consequences of climate change, and the UK is likely to continue to experience them year after year. 

For example, in the summer of 2022, the UK was hit by a series of heatwaves that lasted several weeks.

During the heatwaves, temperatures reached as high as 40.3°C in some parts of the country, breaking records for the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK.

They had a significant impact on the country's infrastructure, with roads and railways suffering from buckling and other damage as a result of the high temperatures.

One notable effect was on critical water assets.

What are water assets?

Water assets refer to any resources, structures, or facilities that are used for the collection, treatment, storage, distribution, and use of water.

This can include a wide range of physical assets, such as dams, reservoirs, water treatment plants, pipelines, pumping stations, and distribution networks.

Water assets also include the infrastructure and systems used to manage and control the water supply, such as monitoring systems, SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, and water meters.

The challenges of climate change on water assets

Some of the key challenges of climate change on water assets are changes in precipitation, sea level rise, water quality, water demand, and water management.

However, in my opinion, the biggest threat is the effects of a sudden change (increase) in temperature on water infrastructure and its monitoring systems.

These include VFD (variable frequency drive) panels [which control the speed of an electric motor and feed pump], actuators, SCADA systems, motors, flowmeters and UBS.

All these instruments, including water quality level transmitters, are sensitive to ambient temperatures.

These effects of high temperature can range from calibration drift and sensor damage to power consumption, data accuracy, and software performance.

A sudden heat like what happened in July 2022 at 40.3°C in Coningsby, Lincolnshire, is a significant threat to the water assets.

Design temperatures

According to industry standards and guidelines, the typical design temperature for water assets in the UK is typically between 20-30°C.

This temperature is based on the maximum ambient temperature that’s expected to be experienced in the location of the asset.

The exact design temperature can vary depending on the specific requirements of the asset and its location.

The benefits of adapting water assets to climate change

Adapting water assets to climate change can bring several benefits for water utility companies.

These include:

  1. Increased reliability: they can improve the reliability of their assets and reduce the risk of failures and service interruptions.
  2. Increased efficiency: they can improve their energy efficiency, reduce operating costs, and increase the overall performance of their systems.
  3. Reduced maintenance costs: they can reduce the frequency and cost of maintenance activities and extend the service life of their equipment.
  4. Improved water quality: they can ensure the safety and quality of the water supply for their customers.
  5. Increased resilience: they can increase the resilience of their systems and better prepare for extreme weather events and other climate-related risks.
  6. Better adaptation to changing conditions: they can stay ahead of the curve and be better prepared to adapt to changing conditions, ensuring the long-term sustainability of their systems.

How can the UK increase the resilience of its water assets?

The design temperature is a critical factor in the design of water assets.

It directly affects the performance and efficiency of the asset and can have significant impacts on its longevity and reliability.

For this reason, it’s important for water utility companies to factor in climate-resilient design principles and the effects of heatwaves when planning and constructing new water assets.

They should also conduct regular monitoring and maintenance to ensure that their assets continue to perform as expected.

6 strategies for increasing the resilience of water assets

There are several other strategies that can be used to increase the resilience of water assets.

These include:

  1. Regular monitoring and maintenance of water assets can help to identify and address potential problems early, reducing the risk of failures and service interruptions.
  2. Upgrading water assets with modern materials and technologies can improve their performance, efficiency, and resilience, and reduce the risk of failures and service interruptions.
  3. Improving data management can help water utility companies to better understand the current condition of their assets and make more informed decisions about how to address the impacts of climate change.
  4. Conducting risk assessments and developing risk management plans to identify and prioritise the key risks posed by climate change, and to implement proactive measures to address these risks.
  5. Building strong partnerships and working collaboratively with stakeholders, such as government agencies, other water utility firms, and community groups, can help to increase the resilience of water assets by sharing resources, knowledge, and best practices.
  6. Adequate financial planning and investment in water assets can help to ensure that they are maintained and upgraded to meet changing conditions and stay resilient in the face of climate change.

Case study: how Qatar adapts its water assets to heatwaves and climate change

Qatar is a desert country with a arid and subtropical climate, with hot, dry summers and mild winters.

The average temperatures in the summer can reach up to 40°C, and can sometimes exceed 50°C.

Heatwaves are a common weather phenomenon in Qatar and are characterised by prolonged periods (several weeks) of high temperatures.

These heatwaves can have significant impacts on water resources, infrastructure, and systems, and threaten national water security.

To mitigate these impacts, the country is implementing various adaptation measures.

These include the expansion of its desalination capacity, the development of cooling systems, and more importantly, adapting the infrastructure and systems for frequent heatwaves.

In the past 13 years, Qatar has invested in the development of new water distribution systems that are designed to be resilient to heatwaves and other climate-related impacts.

In addition, all the existing water stations and network systems are undergoing refurbishment programs, including the use of new materials that are resistant to high temperatures as high as 60°C and extreme weather events.

Qatar is implementing an adaptive management approach to water resource management, which involves monitoring, upgrading local codes and regulations to the impacts of heatwaves on water resources, and adjusting management strategies as necessary to ensure their sustainability.

Where should the UK begin?

The UK should start taking serious steps to adapt water assets to climate change.

It could begin, for example, by upgrading government codes and regulations.

It’s also important for water utility companies to implement proactive measures to monitor and control the temperature of the water in the pumping system.

It could do this with the use of technology like temperature sensors, heat exchangers and cooling systems.

Additionally, they should carry out refurbishment programmes to adapt assets to changing ambient conditions.

They could do this by installing equipment that’s designed to handle higher temperatures and incorporate temperature control measures into their maintenance programmes.

  • Hassan Suleiman, civil engineer at KEO International Consultants