CIWEM Conference on the Water Act 2014: Resilience in Practice

“Resilience” seems to be the new buzz word within the water industry, but why? and what does it actually mean?  Victoria Ashton attended CIWEM’s Water Act – Resilience in Practice conference last week and has been reflecting on the meaning of resilience.

The discussion around resilience has been driven by the inclusion of Ofwat’s new ‘Resilience Duty’ within the Water Act 2014.  Ofwat has had a Ministerial direction: “to keep under review the impact of their regulatory approach on activity by water and sewerage sector to prepare for longer-term challenges” and clearly defined resilience objectives.  This was included to address aspects of the current system which tend to focus on short-term planning.  In turn this could make it difficult to implement solutions which would deliver a more resilient water resources system.

So what is meant by resilience? There were several different definitions used at the CIWEM conference, each building on one another and getting increasingly complex – resilience is: the ability to cope, to be safe and sure, to be safe and sustainable, the ability to mitigate and adapt, to be able to learn and cope, the ability to withstand shock and continue to function, the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events, the degree to which the system can minimise failure magnitude and duration, the ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to and recover from shocks.  In terms of water resources planning, we need to worry about it because of the increasing pressures exerted by the increasingly significant variability in events, e.g. climate change. Resilience is the “bounce-back-ability” under these extreme conditions[i].

So considering resilience introduces an interesting shift away from the short-term 5 yearly periodic planning towards a longer term approach to find the optimum solution.  We do need to be careful however not to return to a capex bias and to constantly ask if the resilience duty presents an opportunity or a burden.

The introduction of Ofwat’s resilience duty is a shakeup of the existing system, but it is very much work in progress and as such presents an opportunity to get involved at the inception stage.  Most presentations at the conference referred to resilience in the context of infrastructure and assets.  There was no consideration of how the better use of data, to provide more information on system performance could improve resilience.  Neither was there any assessment of how reducing the demand for water could reduce the pressure on water resources, and therefore increase resilience.  Finally, only one of the conference speakers (Rose O’Neill from WWF-UK) talked about the resilience of the water environment.

Resilience in water resources terms should also be more than just the ability to bounce back and recover from adversity, or to build more resource redundancy into the system.  It is the broader adaptive capacity which is gained from an understanding of the risks and uncertainties in our water systems and the wider water environment. Understanding the spatial and temporal variability about who is using water and when, and identifying areas which have historically been affected under extreme events is important.  The more information we can gather will increase the effectiveness of the interventions which can be targeted to achieve the best results.  Bespoke solutions, not a one size fits all.

Ofwat are planning a consultation on this before 2015 and they are encouraging discussions and welcoming views.  We are looking forward to contributing and following how this debate develops.

[i] Bounce-back-ability is a word that seems to have been invented by Ian Dowie, former Crystal Palace FC manager.