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Water resilience finally taking 'centre stage'

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  • Water resilience finally taking 'centre stage'

From doing better on diversity to embracing BIM, Blair Mitchell, head of water for engineering consultancy WSP, gives his outlook on multiple challenges facing the sector.

Resilience has never been higher on the Water sector’s agenda says Blair Mitchell, head of water for WSP UK.

He joined the global engineering professional services firm in December 2020 to lead a 350-strong combined team of water service lines across its UK business. Having spent a few months in the role, Blair outlines his ambitious plans for WSP’s UK water team and how they can help their clients meet the increasing challenges of water scarcity and security, flooding and pollution.

“WSP previously had three separate water businesses due to acquisitions. Having a combined water team like this means we can emphasise the real value of resilient and efficient engineering and water management, alongside flood and coastal risk management, to our clients across all the technical disciplines in the water space within one business,” said Blair.

Resilience has never been higher on the Water sector’s agenda

The water team currently works on some of the most significant projects in the UK for both regulated and non-regulated clients including Severn Trent Water, Northern Ireland Water, Southern Water, Network Rail, Highways England, HS2 as well as a large portfolio of local government and international projects.

Blair explained that central to the team’s ethos is that all projects are delivered efficiently while reducing risk, and they meet WSP’s commitment to halve the carbon footprint of all designs and advice provided to clients by 2030 – which in turns supports water clients meet their own commitment to deliver a net-zero water supply for customers by 2030.

A new approach

The first few months in the role have seen new appointments and the launch of a new organisational structure.

“When I started, I was primarily focused on becoming familiar with the business, the team, our clients and our markets. We are such a large team I wanted to ensure we had the right structure and support across the business before bringing in any widescale changes. Seven months later we are in a position to launch a new structure, which is really exciting.”

Blair explained the reorientation of strategy and resource planning has seen the business move to a service line approach, with focus on four key areas:

  • Technical advisory
  • Asset design
  • Asset management
  • Water risk management.

Blair has also brought an increasing focus on people and diversity and inclusion (D&I), and a top priority has been engaging with all our team members to ensure they have a voice and improve engagement. Key to this has been the establishment of a people forum which is empowered to influence and action the important areas for our team. For example, we have been working with Where Women Work to reach and engage more female talent, as well as introducing a reverse mentoring scheme with our early career professionals with a particular focus around increasing D&I.

Putting resilience centre-stage

Governments are signalling support for significant infrastructure projects to proceed, and the climate emergency requires ever more innovative resilience and adaptation solutions. With the UN climate change conference COP26 taking place in Glasgow in November, Blair thinks water issues may finally be at the fore.

“There's more focus globally on water issues and challenges than ever before and to an extent this has been reflected during COP26, with water being given a greater focus than previously,” he said.

WSP’s campaign on climate change resilience will focus on encouraging collaboration inside and outside the water sector to deliver more sustainable outcomes, raise awareness of the opportunities for meaningfully capturing and using data, and create innovative strategies and solutions. The company is also hosting events in Glasgow and across the UK to help raise awareness of the issues.

Innovative solutions

Blair outlined some of the interesting projects currently underway at WSP, which focus on improving resilience in the face of severe weather events.

The first is a partnership between Cornwall Council, Looe Harbour Commission, WSP and the Environment Agency, who are working on a multi-million pound flood protection project to safeguard the town for the next 100 years.

South-east Cornwall’s picturesque and historic fishing harbour of Looe holds the dubious accolade of being the UK’s most flooded town. Planned works to tackle this issue include installing a new breakwater structure to protect the town from large waves and the construction of a tidal barrage across the East Looe River that would be closed when a storm threatens, stopping sea water from travelling up the river and over-topping its banks.

As well as tackling flooding, the broader aim of the scheme is to create an uplift to the local economy. Blair explained how the scheme will go beyond dealing with the practicalities of flood risk to act as a regeneration catalyst for the town, and the wider region. For example by designing the breakwater so that it can provide additional berthing areas for fishing and leisure boats to boost the number of vessels the town can accept. Likewise, the team is considering how to enhance the tidal barrage with the addition of walkways on either side of the structure to make it more appealing for residents and visitors.

WSP has also developed an innovative tool to detect coastal erosion. It was created as a demonstration project for the Met Office as a way of applying a new methodology for predicting coastal erosion under climate change. Having proven its worth in the demonstration project, the tool for modelling shoreline retreat promises to provide a vital guide in protecting coastal communities, assets and infrastructure.

The team is also currently working on a digital product to help businesses incorporate the value of natural assets into the decision-making processes.

Natural capital is defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets including water. As natural capital is fast becoming a hot topic in the water industry, WSP has developed a tool called NATURE – which assesses the natural capital impact of land use and management changes at the project level. The tool is intended assist achieving environmental net-gains in line with ambitions expressed in the Government’s 25-Year Environment plan.

Digital for the win

Helping the water sector to adopt new technologies and ways of working is central to WSP’s plans moving forward.

The digital revolution is helping to improve how infrastructure is planned, designed and built. Historically the water industry was slow to adopt these techniques but in the last few years the sector has learned from other industries that had already adopted Building information modelling (BIM) and has moved rapidly to improving information on its assets and even to “digital twins” of asset systems.

The digital revolution is helping to improve how infrastructure is planned, designed and built

“We're looking carefully at all infrastructure from a digital and BIM perspective to better understand our clients’ assets – where they are, what their condition is and the level of degradation that can be assessed. We can then look at proactive predictive maintenance and less capital-intensive programmes of work,” said Blair.

WSP is working with experts across a range of industries that have already adopted the digital approach, to bring that cross-sector learning to the water arena.

“The water utilities have a lot of data, but they don't always know how to use it to best effect. So once you have access to this massive information base, the question becomes - how can we use that knowledge more effectively? That is where a BIM approach can be especially valuable.”

Water is everywhere

It is not just the utility sector that needs to increase resilience when it comes to water. Water security is a vital part of all industries, which is why WSP specialises in helping the public sector, businesses and communities improve resilience across a range of sectors by planning for and adapting to these challenges – be they financial, environmental, or legislative.

“It’s an exciting time to work in water as it touches every business and industry in every part of our world,” said Mitchell, “I am thrilled that WSP is playing, and will continue to play, a part tackling big issues like resilience, water security and climate change preparedness - while also helping protect the environment for future generations.”

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