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Flooding focus for 'Prepared' university project
From melting polar ice caps and widespread drought, to hosepipe bans and districts being deluged by flood water – climate change affects us all.
Addressing climate change is a priority for large companies, but some are more geared up than others to tackle this.
For those who provide water services, the issue is of vital importance and is being addressed by a pioneering project by the University of Bradford.
Appropriately entitled ‘Prepared’, the EU-funded scheme centres on helping water utilities to adapt to the consequences of changing climatic patterns.
“It is about being prepared – how to face any problems that might arise,” says Dr Liz Sharp, senior lecturer in environmental management and governance who is spearheading the project with Professor Simon Tait, a colleague in the university’s Centre for Sustainable Environments.
Says Prof Tait: “It encompasses a whole range of activities, from technical, to looking closely at the way the organisation works, to institutional arrangements.”
Water utilities are working hard on innovative technological changes, but are less accustomed to working with the public and other stakeholders such as the Environment Agency and local authorities, explains Dr Sharp.
Among the innovations they are looking at is keeping rainwater out of the sewer system through small, local, storage systems which could be located at roadsides, beside paths or in people’s gardens. “Here it could be collected and used for watering plants,” says Dr Sharp.
“Rainfall would flow here, rather than running along picking up dirt and rubbish, and could be released when required.”
The team is working closely with universities in Australia and Austria, looking at the ways they work. “In Australia, storm water sewers are separate from foul-water sewers, whereas in the UK they are combined,” says Prof Tait.
“They have a lot of experience in dealing with storm water in innovative ways – for instance they have ‘rain gardens’ with storage tanks that fill up and self-water trees for many months. These green areas are real assets to the landscape.”
He adds: “The Australians have done quite a lot of work looking at how plants can clean the water, too.”
While this information is common knowledge among water companies in the UK, the results are seen as being hard to achieve, says Dr Sharp. “This is not because the science is difficult, but due to the many different institutions that need to be involved such as residents, local authority highways departments, and other agencies. We are working on how to overcome this.”
Technical solutions can also be expensive, using many resources and with uncertain outcomes. Talking through possible alternatives with other bodies could prove to be equally effective. To this end, communication skills are of vital importance and provide another focus for the project.
The academics are working on a case study with Welsh Water, running a series of workshops looking at how they are dealing with the issue. The team is researching how they work and talking about how they should communicate to other bodies, including the public.
Says Dr Sharp: “Often people ask questions such as: ‘it is pouring down, so why are we in a drought situation?’ There is a need to communicate how it is all connected, how it is all one story.”
“It makes sense to address multiple problems,” she adds. “In building flood water ditches, you may be motivated by the need to alleviate flooding, but water sitting in ditches also addresses issues of ground water.”
Adds Prof Tait: “Those dealing with drainage problems may not liaise with those who work in water resources. They may focus on different problems and might not see the potential links.”
He cites Bradford Council as an example of a local authority which excels in involving other agencies in water management. “Our work on this project is built around experience working with Bradford and Leeds Councils, Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency”.
Finance is a crucial area, says Dr Sharp. “If you are looking only at flooding, or drought, it may not be enough to justify expenditure to help tackle the problem. We help people explore how they can be more joined-up. We are a bit like innovators, getting people in different organisations to talk to one another and help each other.”
Welsh Water, which is keen to build on its already good relationship with local authorities, is also working with the Bradford team on ways its staff communicate internally.
It is hoped that the project’s conclusions can be passed on and used by other water companies and agencies working in the field.