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“Looking to the future it is clear that the climate crisis is now the most pressing problem”

Dr Piers Clark, Chairman of Isle Utilities.
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Isle Utilities is formed by a global team of scientists, engineers, business and regulatory experts, who aim to make a positive social, economic, and environmental impact through the advancement of emerging technologies and innovating practices.

Passionate about innovation, Isle supports water utilities all over the world with the uptake of technologies. The founder and chairman of the Isle Group Piers Clark is a technical and industry expert with more than 25 years’ experience in the water, waste and utilities sectors. In this interview Piers shares his thoughts on current concerns of the water sector. Read on to learn about Isle’s priorities and their brainchild to foster knowledge-sharing in the water sector, the Water Action Platform, initially set up to help with the Covid-19 response, which has evolved to dealing now with a much broader range of topics.

Could you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role in Isle Utilities?

I am the Chairman of the Isle Group Ltd. Isle is a technical, specialist, water consultancy, employing about 100 people and with offices in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the USA, Australia, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Isle works with over 250 utilities around the world helping them identify and adopt new technology.

Isle helps water utilities identify and adopt new technologies and innovations which will help our clients better serve their customers

Prior to joining Isle I was the Managing Director for the $1 bn private equity fund called Global Water Development Partners (GWDP), a Blackstone portfolio company. From 2010-14 I was the Commercial Director at Thames Water, the largest of the UK water companies. Prior to this I was the Managing Director of Mouchel’s Regulated Industries leading a team of 3,000 staff providing engineering consultancy and operational maintenance services in the water, energy, environment and rail sectors.

Isle Utilities aims to be a catalyst for the adoption of emerging technologies. Can you tell us about your company’s priorities for the near future?

The ethos within Isle is that we help water utilities identify and adopt new technologies and innovations which will help our clients better serve their customers.

At the beginning of the pandemic it was clear that many water utilities around the world were trying to work out how best they could respond to the pandemic. Recognising that it was vitally important that utilities shared their learnings, both good and bad, we set up a forum through which utilities could ask questions, share experiences and generally learn from one another. It was launched on March 23rd 2020 and within a month we had over 500 members. Today this forum, called the Water Action Platform, has over 1500 members from 92 countries.

The pandemic has obviously dominated our activities over the past 2 years, but looking to the future it is clear that the climate crisis (and how we can avert the worst impacts of this impending disaster) is now the most pressing problem. Helping our clients address this challenge is now our number one priority.

Dr Piers Clark, Chairman of Isle Utilities.

Collaboration is essential to meet current and future water challenges; what role do you see for private and public actors?

We work with both public and private utilities. It would be easy to focus on the differences between these two groups but I prefer to think about the similarities. After all, there are far more things that public and private utilities have in common than they have as differences.

For example, both experience the same type of day-to-day operational challenges (floods, droughts, non revenue water challenges etc) and both, in general, employ highly skilled, very competent technical staff who strive every day to provide better water and sanitation services.

From my experience it is these individuals ‘on the ground’ who drive real collaboration between utilities. Yes, it helps if there is a clearly defined corporate strategy which encourages collaboration and the sharing of best practice, but what we have seen from the Water Action Platform is that it is the stories and experiences from the individuals – irrespective of whether they are from public or private organisations – which makes the difference.

What trends do you see in the uptake of innovative technologies and practices in water management?

Over the last few years there has been a significant (and somewhat glorious) increase in the number of technologies which utilise data better. Some refer to this as ‘digitization’, others as ‘artificial intelligence’, but basically it all comes down to the same thing: how can we get better operational wisdom out of the day-to-day data which is collected from our various sensors and samples.

At the Water Action Platform we have seen that it is the stories and experiences from the individuals which makes the difference

This trend towards better data management is seen across every aspect of technology, from pumps to process plant, from water supply to wastewater treatment and biosolids management.

Can you comment on how utilities have handled the coronavirus health emergency to minimise its impacts and help with recovery?

Not surprisingly different utilities have responded in different ways, but the sense of urgency has been universal. I think it is fair to say that across the world water utilities have responded well to the pandemic, in general keeping the taps flowing and the toilets flushing.

However, what we have seen which is particularly disturbing is how water utilities have had to absorb the significant financial impact of the pandemic. I suspect that this is a problem we are yet to see unravel.

For example, in many parts of the world governments made a blanket decision to waive water bills, or lower water tariffs. In most cases this was a very sensible decision which preserved public health. However, it was made at a time when most water utilities needed to increase their operational costs in order to ensure that their assets continued to operate during the pandemic.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 9 - September 2021
SWM Bimonthly 9

The impact of this significantly increased cost during a time of significantly decreased income has resulted in many water utilities now being in a perilous financial state and we are yet to see how this will be resolved.

Which world regions are most advanced concerning the implementation of technologies and where should efforts concentrate?

Now that’s an unfair question! How can I answer without offending at least half of the readers?! Perhaps I can twist the question and respond with some comments about how different regions tend to respond…

From my experience, and I stress that this is just my personal experience not a corporate view from Isle, I find that Australian utilities are very open to new technology. They will actively, and quite intensely, engage on new ideas often at a stage when they are very early in their development. In Europe and North America there is a stronger appetite to do trials (at large scale), but this is usually for technologies at a TRL (Technology Readiness Level) of 8 or above.

Some countries of course (for example Israel, Singapore etc) are hot-beds for innovation, and this is usually driven by a national policy made at government level.

Which organisations and speakers have participated in the Water Action Platform to date?

We have held over 30 webinars, and on each webinar we usually have 4 or 5 speakers, ranging from sector experts, to technologists, to utility operators. With this in mind there are too many to name individually (and I worry I would offend the people I would inevitably miss out), but perhaps the ones to mention here are those who we invited to speak first.

Dr Piers Clark, Chairman of Isle Utilities.

Back in April 2020 the pandemic had really only taken hold in Italy and many other parts of the world were either bracing themselves, or were (somewhat foolishly) living in a state of denial (i.e., “it won’t happen to me”). With this in mind, we invited a couple of the scientific team (Dr Michela Biasibetti and Laura Mostarda) from the Italian utility Acque Bresciane to share what they had been going through.

They were exceptionally honest and open in their description of what they had experienced, and in their advice as to how other utilities should prepare themselves. It was, I believe, a pivotal moment for many people who were listening.

What is your assessment of what has been accomplished so far through the Water Action Platform?

I wish I could tell you that when we launched the Water Action Platform I had a clear vision of what it would become, however that would be untrue. I started the Water Action Platform as nothing more than a simple WhatsApp group, to which I had invited a few utilities to join so they could share their experiences. If you had asked me on the day we launched it how I thought it was going to grow I would have said that I hoped we might get 10 – 20 utilities involved. Within 3 days we had 72 utilities (I remember thinking that on average one utility had joined each hour since it had been launched).

The impact of increased cost and decreased income during the pandemic has left many water utilities in a perilous financial state

When I look back at what we have achieved over the past 18 months through the Water Action Platform I am truly astonished. For example, we were one of the first organisations to spot the opportunity to monitor the spread of the SAR-COV-2 virus through sewage effluent and as the scientific evidence for this grew we played an important role in spreading this news across the sector, thereby ensuring everyone had the same information.

Of course, we have also achieved things which are nothing to do with the pandemic. Following the terrible port disaster in Lebanon in August 2020 we initiated – through the Water Action Platform - the Crisis Response Register. The CRR provides a mechanism for water specialists to offer their services to assist with crises as and when they occur.

What is your vision for this initiative in the future?

As noted at the start of this interview, the biggest challenge facing the world right now is the impending climate crisis. Future generations will, I believe, hold this generation responsible. We knew the science behind climate change, we knew we were not acting fast enough, we understood the consequences of our actions. However, to date at least, we have not responded with the appropriate sense of urgency.

My vision for the Water Action Platform is that we will build upon the collaboration and sharing which has been created over the past 18 months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and we will mobilise this same level of collaboration, sharing and sense of urgency to address the climate crisis. If we do not address this problem our grandchildren will hold us responsible.