Water, swans and sustainability

Bold change efforts are required to meet sustainable practice in the water sector, write Charles Ainger and Dick Fenner – editors of new ICE Publishing book, Sustainable Water

Sustainable Water is now available to buy from the ICE Bookshop
Sustainable Water is now available to buy from the ICE Bookshop

The water sector in the UK (and in many other developed countries) is a bit like a swan swimming on a fast moving stream. On the surface, it is capable and looks serene, so we take its presence and capability for granted. But underneath, out of sight, it is paddling away like mad, just to stay in the same place.

Keeping up requires serving more customers, with better service, and doing more to keep increasing sets of expensive assets maintained and efficient. Coping with the future – which is already with us – adds huge challenges: climate change driving increased asset and domestic sewage flooding, and less raw water to abstract, and how to reduce energy use and carbon emissions; and how to increase resource recovery, and remove new and difficult chemicals.

And, we must meet all these under the steady pressure of limited affordability. As economies have slowed and inequality increased, many customers can no longer afford to pay for us to just build our way out of trouble. So water organisations' journey to sustainability – continuing to deliver an effective and reliable water and wastewater service despite all these disruptive challenges – is hard, but vital. It requires continuous and dramatic innovation.

But what kind of innovation?

Although new technology is a key part of this, the innovation we need involves much more, for instance:

  • New modelling and simulation, for complex urban problems1
  • New collaborations between people who have not worked together before, such as farmers, landowners and water utilities2
  • New procurement and supply chain business models and behaviour
  • And even, a changed mindset – that solving a problem without building anything is equally "good engineering" (when will the British Construction Awards first award a prize to such a solution?)
a changed mindset is crucial to understanding how to deliver sustainable water practice
A changed mindset is crucial to understanding how to deliver sustainable water practice.

The water sector is seen as bad at innovation – slow, because of long-lived assets; and risk averse, because of public health responsibilities and exposure to public scrutiny. However, our experience is that some developments are helping innovation, such as outcomes-based regulation and partnered programme supply chain procurement. Also, many brave project teams have indeed translated new ideas into first full scale projects – this usually as an exception, done outside the "system".

The first follower concept

Our real innovation failure is in the next step – being much too slow in spreading successful new experience, starting with a "first follower"3 project. This validates it into something that is then applied much more widely, and becomes embedded in the system, as universal standard practice.

As an example, in 2006 Helsinki implemented a first large scale extraction of heat recovery from sewage effluent; it was publicised in a 2008 article4. We picked this up and immediately included it in conference presentations. In 2011-12 we got the idea tested as a "what-if" study for the UK situation, in a Masters dissertation; and published5. Finally, in early 2016 we read of the first extraction of heat from sewage in UK6.

Must it take 10 years? Can't we do it faster? Engineers look for "evidence", so early, authoritative reporting of first-use "demonstrators" are vital to faster spreading of new practice. But unlike academics, practitioners have little time and no incentive to publish such accounts. So, much academic material is written about sustainability in many aspects of water, but much less that approaches it from the time-limited, output-driven perspective of the practical engineer/practitioner.

Crossing the gap

Our new book, Sustainable Water, aims to help cross that "knowledge gap". It applies a common set of sustainability principles to water sector practice, and combines this with practical experience and a practical style. Several chapters have been written by authors who are specialists in their respective fields, with a wide range of innovative examples.

Further, most successful implementation of "first use of the idea" projects have involved significant and often clever "change" efforts in getting past the barriers to innovation. If anyone else is to take up the idea, they need to hear the story of not just the what of the new practice, but also an explanation of how it was accepted. The book addresses this through its Part III on "change".

Some of this may seem hard to do, but there are many opportunities. "Sustainable water practice" is within reach. Even if you don't see yourself as a "change agent", you have more capacity to change things than you think.

The book is dedicated to all water practitioners, everywhere, who are making water services sustainable. We hope it encourages all water engineers, sector organisations, institutions and academia to adopt and then share innovative practice, and put more effort into writing and publishing it7, and searching for and trying out, the new examples of sustainable water practice that are available worldwide.

"Boldness be my friend; arm me, audacity." William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Sustainable Water – ICE Publishing

Sustainable water

Sustainable Water is available to purchase from the ICE Bookshop, priced at £35.00.


  1. See: www.urbansustainabilityexchange.org.uk
  2. See: www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/projects/details/218780-scamp-sustainable-catchment-management-programme
  3. See "follower leadership" at: sivers.org/ff
  4. See: Fred T (2008) Large scale heat transfer from wastewater in city heating and cooling systems. IWA WWC Water and Energy Workshop, Vienna
  5. Hawley C and Fenner RA (2012) The potential for thermal heat recovery from wastewater treatment works in Southern England. IWA Journal of Water and Climate Change, 3(4): 87-299
  6. Brockett J (2016) Sewage heat warms Scottish College. Journal of Water and Wastewater Treatment, January 2016, 19-21
  7. See: Ainger, C (2013); Briefing: Speeding up innovation by better 'first use' reporting. Proceedings of the ICE – Engineering Sustainability 1(1): 8-10

ICE Procurement & Supply Chain Conference

Find out more about innovative procurement approaches in the water sector at our Procurement & Supply Chain Conference on 13 April 2016. Presentations include:

  • Transformation through Alliancing: the Thames Water approach
    Toby Harding – Head of Delivery, Thames Water Infrastructure Alliance
  • Innovation through transformation – Yorkshire Water
    Andy Clark – Head of Procurement & Contract Management, Yorkshire Water
  • Case Study: Northumbrian Water Accelerated Flooding Programme
    John McGovern – Head of Asset Delivery, Northumbrian Water