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How Water Infrastructure Needs to Adapt to Climate Change

The summer of 2022 has played host to some of the most exceptional meteorological conditions that have been observed in recent history. The period of dry weather during the season is what we all look forward to over the colder months, but the extended record temperatures also bring some adverse effects that bear all the hallmarks of accelerating climate change.

The agreement made during the COP26 climate conference emphasised the increasing importance of anthropological adaption to changes in local and global conditions including temperatures, sea-levels and most notably, precipitation. It has therefore been both fascinating and troubling to observe the changes to the water cycle during the recent heat-waves and consider what effect changing quantities of water may have on the environment, infrastructure and ultimately people in the future.

To this end, this article aims to discuss how we view and consume water as both a vital resource and an intrinsic part of the natural environment, assess our current infrastructure’s readiness for climate change and discuss the feasibility of any solutions needed to adapt to these changing conditions.

Changes to the water cycle

Rising average global temperatures will have a range of effects on macro-scale weather systems as well as more focused regional change. It is therefore worth noting why this happens and what effect this will have on the planet, the environment, and people so we can plan and adapt accordingly. For example, when the air gets warmer it increases its ability to hold moisture through evaporation which is taken from natural aquifers, water tables, as well as other ground and surface water stores.

This water is important for trees, vegetation, crops, and animals while also feeding the reservoirs that supply us with domestic tap water and the waterways that handle internal trade in some parts of the world. If the supply of this water is reduced through evaporation or excessive human consumption, the earth can be starved of water and risks anything from drought, wildfire, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and crop failures that can have long-lasting effects, in addition to any economic impacts.

In contrast, the more evaporation you have the more precipitation you will eventually get, which can exacerbate existing conditions through intensified rainfall and flash-flooding caused by impermeable soil or insufficient drainage infrastructure. Equally, the movement of weather systems and water vapour will leave some regions drier or wetter on average, creating the need to adapt accordingly.

Adaption

In the context of climate strategy, adaption has become an integral part of our response to the rise in global temperatures as we experience more and more of these changes first-hand. This situation does present its own challenges as in the case of the water cycle, we are restricted to the whims of global weather systems. However, where the water does gather, we can have a lot more control over where it goes and how it is used, which is where investing in adaption infrastructure will play a vital role.

Leaky water pipes cause damage and disruption in Bristol

Leaky water pipes cause damage and disruption in Bristol.

The UK is a prime example of where a lack of critical reinvestment into basic maintenance and progressive infrastructure is exacerbating the already changing regional climate conditions. The recent warm weather has seen exceptionally low levels of ground and surface water which, combined with excessive domestic consumption, has contributed to drought conditions around the country.

Currently, over one trillion litres of water are lost to leaky infrastructure every year in the UK and while there have been improvements in leak detection sensor networks and funding for efficient water outlets like shower heads, without a real budget for significant adaption, the environment will suffer while around 20% of usable water supply continues to be wasted.

Induced rainfall techniques deployed in China

Induced rainfall techniques deployed in China

In China, we can already observe the effects that a hotter and more humid climate can have on a region where the population is more dependent on rivers for logistics and reservoirs for power as the country reports on its lowest water levels in recorded history. The increase in temperature and subsequent demand for HVAC systems adds to the pressure on water-based energy sources, especially as the demand on infrastructure grows.

Frustratingly, hydroelectric power is one of the most promising sources of renewable energy available and one of the few that can modify its output to meet demand but the situation in China does also demonstrate that it has sustainable limits as temperatures rise. The Chinese government has responded to the situation by asking people to reduce their consumption and attempting to induce rain artificially but while the effectiveness of this strategy is disputed, there is a clear requirement to deploy a broader range of renewables to take the pressure of water resources, while emphasising the role of hydroelectric in mitigating the intermittent generation from solar and wind so as not to fall back onto new fossil fuel projects.

walking through a flooded street

At the forefront of climate change, one third of the country is underwater.

Conversely, we have also seen the effects rising temperatures can have on wetter climates in India, Bangladesh and most recently Pakistan where one-third of the country is currently underwater! The escalating monsoon weather brings torrential rain and flooding in addition to rising sea levels in low-lying regions. The damage can be severe where even the bare minimum of drainage infrastructure or flood defences do not exist and is estimated to cost $10 billion in Pakistan alone this year as crops are washed away, homes are submerged, and key infrastructure like roads and bridges are destroyed.

In the interest of climate strategy these situations can seem quite bleak and while there are measures to reduce the impacts of flooding such as proper storm drain infrastructure, flood barriers and even active pumped solutions such as those used in the Netherlands, the scale of the problem is huge. As an engineer facing the reality of this adversity, you wonder how feasible it is to build anything remotely like the vast underground channels seen protecting Tokyo from typhoons, without access to the wealth and engineering proficiency of Japan. In the interest of adaption therefore it is important we understand what form this will take, can we spare the resources to do it, how much time is needed, who is responsible, and ultimately, who is going to pay?

A keen maker and electronic engineer with a passion for the environment, renewables, alternative transport and anything off-grid. Man with a van and founder of the Kickstart Kamper sustainable campervan project. Grassroots Education Sustainability Ambassador. Compulsive tea-drinker. BrightSpark 2017. BEng.
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