The past year has seen the spotlight fall on the environment and the rapidly growing impact of climate change like never before. The water sector stands ready to meet the challenge, says Anglian Water CEO Peter Simpson, but not all the answers come from within.
"As David Bowie famously said on his 50th birthday, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” After another turbulent year in 2021, I can’t help wondering what 2022 will bring for our sector – but I’m pretty sure it won’t be boring either.
"If 2020 was indisputably the year of Covid, 2021 was the year of the environment and climate action, with momentum building towards COP26 and the passing of the Environment Act in November. Having, frankly, wondered whether COP would live up to the hype, I came away from a week in the Blue Zone feeling inspired and heartened by the tangible progress that’s taking place in so many areas.
"So while there were cries of ‘blah, blah, blah’, and justified concern that the official declaration left 1.5° on life support, it was a huge breakthrough to see water play a central role for the first time at any COP, with the first ever dedicated Water Pavilion and widespread acknowledgement that water is critical to the climate debate. And after many years of adaptation being the poor relation to mitigation, it was fantastic to see its profile raised – notably through the Resilience Hub, which really put the spotlight on the transformative action we need to deliver globally if we’re going to adapt successfully to the risks posed by climate change.
"Yet in so many areas of the climate debate, it’s business that’s leading the way, not just in setting targets which in many cases make those set by governments look tentative and wary, but with tangible and transformative action.
"The water industry’s sector-wide commitment to net zero by 2030, 20 years ahead of the UK’s legally binding target, and underpinned by detailed company plans which are already well underway, typifies the level of ambition being shown by the most progressive parts of the private sector. In the words of UK High-Level Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping: “This is one of the most significant steps taken by any sector anywhere in the world.” It’s a commitment which speaks to an industry with a sense of collective responsibility, purpose and a shared vision for the future.
"And that momentum is really gathering pace in the water sector. It started to build with 2019’s public interest commitment, through which we reasserted our intent to put the public good at the heart of our action. Since then we’ve seen the development of a sector-wide 2050 innovation strategy with shared goals and targets. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of collaboration through Ofwat’s £200 million industry-funded Innovation Fund, which is helping us come together to solve huge national challenges. Through RAPID (the Regulators’ Alliance for the Progression of Major Infrastructure) we’re finally seeing a joined up national approach to water infrastructure. And as we close the year, the launch of Spring, our new shared centre for innovation excellence, gives us a new national platform for collaboration.
"So I’m confident that as an industry we’ve now got the right collective mindset and the right tools to help us find solutions to the defining – and in some cases existential – challenges we face.
"What we don’t have is all the answers. Environmental protection and river water quality, emissions reductions and the imperative to adapt to the ever increasing risk of drought and flood – all these need large-scale innovation, huge investment and, perhaps most important of all, cross-sector collaboration.
"We can’t work in isolation. The ongoing debate around combined sewer overflows and river water quality makes this stark. The closing months of 2021 were bruising for our industry. The public discourse has often missed the bigger picture around the many factors and sectors that influence river water quality, from intensive agriculture to highways drainage, and from industrial effluent to over-development. It’s disregarded the investment made by water companies over many years, and overlooked the fact that water companies, including Anglian Water, have vocally stepped up to welcome stronger legislation during the Environment Bill debates.
"Water UK’s 21st Century Rivers report brilliantly resets the dial, acknowledging the key role of water companies in improving rivers, but recognising that government, regulators and multiple industries all have a role in the solution via a jointly owned National Plan for Rivers.
"And ‘jointly owned’ is the key here. A shared mindset and will to collaborate is crucial if we’re to succeed in improving the quality of our rivers.
"We’ve seen how transformational joined-up thinking can be – take, for example, the Future Fens: Integrated Adaptation initiative which we highlighted at COP26. It sees well over 40 stakeholders, led by Anglian Water, the Environment Agency, Water Resources East and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, joining forces in a holistic, place-based approach to unlock new opportunities for the Fens.
"We’ll be continuing our progress in 2022 and taking it global, pursuing the partnership we created through COP with the Living Deltas Hub, which is working to meet challenges in similar geographies but on a vastly different scale.
"With the Environment Act heralding new legally binding targets on water, nature and air quality, the Office for Environmental Protection set to launch and Defra’s Strategic Policy Statement imminent, 2022 promises to be another critical year for the water industry.
"The past year has shown we’ve got the platforms, the collaborative energy and the determination needed to meet the challenges ahead. So if 2021 was a year of hitherto unprecedented collaboration within the water sector, let’s make 2022 a year of unprecedented collaboration between sectors, with local and national government, regulators, agriculture and business sharing the problem-solving load on issues such as river water quality and climate adaptation. The stakes are simply too high to fail."