Water companies must look to other countries for ageing infrastructure solutions

Graham Stevenson, director of Ayesa examines the challenges of the UK's ageing water infrastructure.

As we navigate the ever-growing demands of a growing population and the relentless impacts of climate change, the UK water infrastructure finds itself at the centre of a complex puzzle – it’s simply outdated. 

In this article, we’ll roll up our sleeves and dive into the challenges our water systems are wrestling with, unpack some ingenious engineering solutions, and dissect the influence of climate change on this vital lifeline.

Up and coming initiatives 

The UK’s ageing water infrastructure needs fresh engineering solutions. Climate change adds more pressure with higher temperatures, heavy rainfall, and droughts, urging action. 

One promising initiative is constructive wetlands. Wetlands serve more than water treatment; they’re vital for ecosystems, flood control, and cleaning water naturally. Water flows through tanks and ponds, letting waste settle. Plants, bacteria, algae, and fungi in wetlands break down this waste over time. Irish Water’s success in Dunhill and Glaslough, shifting towards natural wetlands, sets an eco-friendly example for the future.

Another strategy that has been rolled out across the UK to tackle the issue of flooding and enhance wastewater treatment capacity is sustainable urban drainage systems, known as the SuDs. It envisions integrating nature-focused infrastructure throughout London, ranging from small-scale solutions like rooftop water butts to more extensive features such as swales and ponds. By mimicking natural water drainage, these initiatives serve a dual function by helping to manage flooding and maximise water collection.

Reacting to climate change 

But more needs to be done. In the UK and Ireland, we’re not used to grappling with droughts, and our infrastructure isn’t exactly designed to handle extreme weather events like sudden flash floods. However, due to rising temperatures, this is becoming the new normal for water consultants. To put it in perspective, from 2020 to 2025, Thames Water is anticipating a significant 13.5 million litre reduction in its daily water abstraction capacity, all due to the impacts of climate change.

But here’s the silver lining: there are some noteworthy success stories from treatment plants around the world. For instance, the construction of the Palma II Wastewater Treatment Plant. This project, co-funded by NextGenerationEU as part of Spain’s Recovery, Transformation, and Resilience Plan, is set to treat 90,000 cubic meters per day. It will also feature a pre-treatment system capable of handling 30,000 cubic meters per hour. This innovation ensures that untreated wastewater will no longer be discharged into rivers and the sea following intense rainfall events. It’s a promising step forward, particularly in the UK context.

Getting smart about water waste 

When it comes to tackling the water supply-demand challenge, we’ve got to think big, smart and long-term. Thames Water has been getting to work with some serious engineering projects to fix the 150-year-old inadequate stormwater and sewer network. One such project is the construction of the four-mile (6.4km) Lee Tunnel stretching from the Abbey Mills Pumping Station in Stratford to the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works (STW) in Newham, traversing beneath East London. This tunnel serves London’s largest combined sewer overflow, accommodating up to 40% of the city’s sewage discharge. 

One emerging trend on the horizon when it comes to the issue of wastewater is the installation of renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, within the available, often brownfield, spaces of wastewater treatment facilities. This innovative strategy provides a dual advantage, not only contributing to clean energy generation, thereby reducing our environmental footprint but also enhancing self-sufficiency, resulting in cost savings.

The challenges facing the UK’s water infrastructure, ranging from ageing facilities and population growth to the impacts of climate change, are undeniable. As water companies adapt their priorities in response to the evolving climate, drawing inspiration from successful approaches in other countries around the world will undoubtedly chart the way forward.

If you would like to contact Sarah Walker about this, or any other story, please email sarah@infrastructure-intelligence.com.