UK wastewater infrastructure at risk due to climate crisis

The resilience of the UK’s wastewater treatment works is at risk due to extreme weather linked to the climate crisis, according to researchers from the University of Portsmouth.

The team examined how environmental stressors have changed Water Resource Recovery facilities (WRRFs) and found they have increased the likelihood of pollution events.

WRRFs, which produce water, remove nutrients, generate renewable energy, and extract bio-based materials from wastewaters, have been engineered to withstand disturbances to an extent.

But the study, with collaboration from Southern Water and Thames Water, has revealed how the climate crisis and population growth is putting them under extreme stress.

aerial view of green trees and brown buildings during daytime

Lead author of the paper, Timothy Holloway from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Civil Engineering and Surveying, said: ‘Improving asset and infrastructure resilience is a significant challenge for the water industry as operational disruptions caused by stressors become more common and difficult to predict. 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.’

The study, published in Water Research, found that dynamic stressors, such as heavy rainfall and extended dry periods, could be linked to each pollution event tracked.

This discovery echoes future challenges included in the latest IPCC report, which said extreme weather events linked to the climate emergency will damage infrastructure.

The team say that its important water companies understand how stressors manifest and lead to changes in wastewater volume and concentration to give them more time to respond to pollution incidents and reduce their impact.

They have also proposed actual WRRF data be used to mitigate disruption to wastewater operators in the UK and globally.

Photo by Patrick Federi


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