Don’t let climate uncertainty stymie desalination investment says risk expert

Water and wastewater utilities must view climate change as a “disruptive opportunity” and not allow uncertainty to stymie investments in desalination and other resilience measures according to a UK risk management expert. Climate change created a business opportunity where “the most resilient will have an implicit lead over their competitors,” the expert told a recent international forum.

Water companies face a challenge in determining the impacts of climate change but “uncertainty ought not to be the basis for delayed decisions,” warned Cranfield University reseacher, Simon Pollard, speaking at the recent International Water and Climate Forum at San Diego, California.

Pollard said the water sector should be guided in their investment decisions by the risks to their operations created by climate change to guard against long-term outages. “Let’s be bolder about what we know instead of being paralyzed about what we don’t know,” he said.

Even without a clear picture of how climate change might affect their operations, water firms can, according to Pollard, integrate it into their strategic planning through innovation and foresight. They should deploy “measured risks” derived from reasoned analysis of the range of situations to adapt their facilities and build more resilience into their operations he added.

The Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia, was presented as an example. An 11-year drought followed by flooding had forced the water utility to adapt its operations and build more resilience infrastructure. Yarra Valley Water’s managing director, Pat McCafferty, said severe water shortages triggered conservation measures, but the company applied innovative solutions. For example it did not ban outdoor water use but set targets for users and offered to retrofit efficient appliances.

Infromation was a key element in a water bill drawn up to address the crisis: “Large water users didn’t know they were large water users,” said McCafferty. Other measures by Yarra Valley included construction of a new desalination facility and integrated water management programmes.

San Diego Water Authority’s general manager, Maureen Stapleton, described a programme to reduce reliance on imported water and exposure to drought including the recently opened desalination plant in Carlsbad.

Professor and director of the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Virginia, Edward Maibach, emphasised the value of communication with water users. He said the water industry’s message on should be, “Climate change is real, it’s human-caused, it’s harmful and it’s solvable.”

He urged water firms to inform customers of the need to adapt their facilities to climate change impacts and to make them aware of the inevitability of higher bills and taxes. He said customers need to know that climate change not a thing of the future but “is happening here today.”
He advised water companies to: “Show them the kind of challenges you’re dealing with in your water system. And make it vivid.”