Water management’s climate challenge
Climate change is bringing three certain challenges to water management and supply
For those of us working to manage the safe flow and supply of water, climate change is not a theoretical future development. We’re dealing with some of its effects now, and we’re already working in anticipation of further outcomes which we know are on the way.
In particular, there are three changes that we can predict with a high degree of certainty – all of which will have a significant impact on water management.
1. Sea level rise
We know for certain that sea levels will rise; it’s just a question of how far and – crucially – how fast. With a third of the world’s population living in coastal areas, the rate of change will make a huge difference to our ability to cope and adapt.
2. Melting glaciers
From a water management perspective, there are many parts of the world where glaciers act as a vast storage mechanism, collecting precipitation as snow and releasing it slowly over time. Now they’re melting, any rainfall will run off much more quickly, causing more intense flash flooding downstream.
3. Extreme weather events
As the world heats up, the atmosphere is becoming more dynamic – causing highs and lows in rainfall to become more frequent and intense. This increasing variability makes it more difficult to ensure a continuous supply of water, so water management systems will need more storage and contingency measures in place.
Combining traditional solutions with data
Data science and information systems are key to water management’s climate resilience
But there are reasons for optimism too. While paradigm-changing innovation in water management is rare, there is a steady evolution in techniques that provides hope for the future.
For example, tragic events – like the storm surge flooding that killed and displaced so many people in the past – have prompted new work on predictive modelling and warning systems. As a result, populations living on flood plains and vulnerable coastal areas will have much better warnings when a major event is imminent.
Improved information streams can help us better understand and predict how flood events unfold, so we can make more effective plans to reduce the impacts of disasters on the lives and property of communities worldwide.
Intriguingly, data is also breathing new life into traditional, nature-based water management techniques. Where once we might have relied upon concrete walls alone to protect vulnerable areas against flooding, we now appreciate the effectiveness of combining nature-based solutions with civil engineering measures.
Through data science, we can find the best ways to work alongside nature, rather than against it. Our colleagues’ work in Norfolk, UK, has proven that, once a digital twin has shown us how sea currents are moving sediment, we can prevent coastal erosion using nothing more invasive than sand.
Driving climate resilience through data
But information streams and data modelling have an even more important role to play. Because building water management resilience in the face of climate change is not just a matter of knowing what to do. We also need the political and public will to do it.
If we’re going to mitigate our key climate risks, communication is essential. And that’s not easy, because many of the long-term issues are hard to see and understand in advance – making the solutions less appealing.
For example, water management authorities around the world are rapidly constructing new reservoirs– but water storage capacity overall is falling, because sedimentation is filling reservoirs faster than they can be built. If unaddressed, this will have serious consequences over time for the world’s water supply, but the the case for addressing this issue does unfortunately often not ressonate with dam owners.
In Jakarta, pumping groundwater is causing coastal parts of the city to sink by 20 cm per year. The combined cost of measures to offset the resulting flood risk will far outweigh the price of building an alternative water supply, but it’s complex and difficult to make the change, so the practice continues.
As we’ve seen recently, people are incredibly adaptable – and society can often mobilise quickly to effect huge change – but first we need to see and understand the problem. And this is where data science can have its most profound impact on improving water management.
Providing data to conduct an informed cost/benefit analysis is very useful. But information visualisations like data-driven animations and inundation modelling can change the conversation entirely. When people experience the issue in a virtual environment, they can better appreciate the urgency in the real world.
There’s no doubt that society will need to adapt, if we’re going to manage our water resources more effectively in future. The right data tools can help to define the change we need – and then trigger the decision to make it happen.