Wastewater systems under pressure from climate change

Intense rain and heatwaves threaten to overwhelm existing wastewater resilience
18 August 2022 , By Katie Coyne

Digital tool creating heat map of stressors could help prevent failures in used water treatment and pollution

Rises in water pollution have placed the spotlight on wastewater infrastructure, but a new study has found climate change could make these instances more likely.

While a lack of historical investment into national water infrastructure has been highlighted as a valid and key concern, new research has discovered that climate pressures such as intense rain and heatwaves are also piling on stressors and undermining wastewater resilience.

This is according to work from the University of Portsmouth, in collaboration with water companies Southern Water and Thames Water, in relation to water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs).

These facilities produce clean water, remove nutrients, generate renewable energy, and extract bio-based materials from wastewater. They are key infrastructure systems and as such are engineered to withstand stressors, but with climate change the goalposts are moving.

Researchers have developed a modelling tool using data routinely collected by WRRFs to create a heat map of stressors, and resilience, in order to help prevent disruption and failures in the system. It is hoped in the future this process could also be applied to storm flows and combined sewer discharges.

“If we continue on the same path, it is extremely likely that we will experience more severe pollution events due to new and rapidly emerging stressors on wastewater systems.”

Lead author of the paper, published in Water Research journal, Timothy Holloway said: “As we face significant political, social and environmental uncertainty, water companies and government agencies are forced to manage complex and dynamic changes in resilience to events outside of their control.

“If we continue on the same path, it is extremely likely that we will experience more severe pollution events due to new and rapidly emerging stressors on wastewater systems. This could result in inland flooding, flood and storm damage in coastal areas, and damages to infrastructure.”

Dr Gong Yang, Southern Water’s Process Growth Lead Water Quality said: “This research puts forward a new tool to capitalise the advance of digital and sensing technologies.

“It aims to enable the operator to implement the best strategies in operating a sewer network or a treatment works based on live data so that the customers and environment are better protected from the adverse impact of external environment such as climate change.”

Dr Ben Martin, Lead Research Scientist, Thames Water said: “We are now better able to cope with disruptions, predict and take proactive measures before asset failures, and create autonomous systems that ultimately improve the quality of water supplied to our natural environment.

“Seeing the value of these and similar efforts across industry and academia recognised in this white paper is heartening.”


Image credit: Shutterstock

Luminous cubes

CIEH Leadership Programme

Take your career to the next level with the CIEH Leadership Programme.

Find out more