As the water sector looks towards Ofwat’s next Asset Management Period (AMP8), all eyes are on what future management and investment in the network will look like.
Globally, huge investments are being made in interventions to respond to both current and future water challenges. However, our current ways of interacting with the water system are no longer fit for purpose, and change is required to ensure that investment is successful in building resilience to stresses the networks face.
This is about changing how we view and value water. Shifting the focus from output to outcomes, developing an adaptive approach to planning and creating a stronger social contract between institutions and the public are just some of solutions we as an industry must consider if we are able to ensure asset health and protect the water networks for the future.
When we think of resilience, the core premise is its ability to cope with and recover from disruption, as well as the ability to anticipate and mitigate against future challenges. With increasing volatility due to climate change, the water sector must take an adaptive approach to planning and investing.
One way this can be done is through adaptive pathway planning, which involves identifying a set of potential future investment and activity pathways that may need to be triggered depending on how circumstances evolve and avoid locking in present solutions that may become redundant or obsolete in future.
The whole process is underpinned by an iterative process of monitoring and adjusting as the reality of future trends becomes apparent. It also demonstrates the importance of a consideration in the way our organisations, partnerships and communities are set up to promote resilience and adaptivity to future challenges, with a growing emphasis on the need to build resilience that is equitable and inclusive.
When exploring the interaction between institutions and citizens, we must also seek to understand the terms of the social contract. In the water sector in particular, the strength of this contract is becoming increasingly important as people believe they need to, and are regularly asked to, change their behaviour in the face of current challenges.
There are two key aspects of this relationship. Firstly, there is a need to raise awareness that there is a shared responsibility in managing the health of the network and ensuring its future. Secondly, there will be an inevitable and detrimental limit if those organisations that are seen by the public as being responsible for managing and governing the water system are not trusted, or not seen to be playing their part in the context of shared responsibility.
In the UK, there has been substantial damage to the social contract between water companies and customers in the last year. As well as recognising the need for improved performance by the sector, there is also a growing realisation that this lack of trust is standing in the way of large-scale collective action to reach common goals.
Historically, approaches within the water system have focused on organisational outputs which tend to be easier to measure, easier to regulate and generally within the control of individual actors. This prevailing mindset, even where these outputs are focussed on positive environmental or societal impacts, mean they tend to be considered in isolation from others who contribute to the same issues.
A shift towards outcomes would see common goals put at the centre of what an organisation is looking to positively impact. For example, an organisation may set ‘healthy rivers’ as one of their strategic outcomes. This not only encapsulates the operational improvements they need to make, but also identifies the other actors whose actions affect river quality, understands their proportional impacts, and works together to create solutions that best achieve the common goal. A move from outputs to outcomes isn’t a simple matter of semantics. It is a radical change to how organisations traditionally think and act, moving goals outside of one’s direct sphere of influence.
It has never been more important for all actors in the water sector to consider their role and responsibilities to secure the health and resilience of our networks. Traditional approaches and thinking often assumed a largely stable and predictable future, but this is not what we are faced with now. Whilst the considerations outlined here will not be the only solutions as we adapt to the changing climate, they will form part of the necessary characteristics of future-proofed organisations.