Webinar issues wake-up call on global water challenge

01 Apr 2021

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FIDIC launched its second State of the World report, Establishing the value of water - the business case for change, at a webinar on 1 April 2021, which highlighted that the growing seriousness of the world’s water resources issues are causing increasing financial and social costs and making climate change and global warming worse.

The webinar, attended by 371 global construction and infrastructure professionals, was chaired by FIDIC chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin and was introduced by FIDIC president Bill Howard. Speakers at the event included Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for sustainable development at the University of Cambridge, April Gu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in the USA, Jeshika Ramchund, lead engineer (developments) at Bosch Projects in South Africa, Natalie Muir, general manager (water and environment) at Cardno in Australia, Miguel Mondria, chief technology officer at TYPSA in Spain and Graham Pontin, head of economic and strategic policy at FIDIC.

Opening the webinar, FIDIC president Bill Howard said as a result of the Covid crisis, the world was becoming much more aware of the environmental challenges facing the globe. There was key progress being made on the UN sustainable development goals, but not nearly enough, especially in the area of water. “We need to get all stakeholders involved in solving these challenges and we need to get better at communicating with scientists, politicians, funders and all those who have an impact on this crucial area,” Howard said.

Introducing the report, FIDIC’s head of economic and strategic policy Graham Pontin said that there was much to be done and big challenges ahead. “Meeting the 2030 sustainable development goals requires investment of between 1-2% of GDP on water infrastructure alone – that’s approximately $20 trillion or $2 trillion a year out of the $7 trillion a year infrastructure investment challenge the world faces,” he said. Pontin said that time was running out, with just 3,196 days until 2030 to conceptualise, plan, fund, procure, design, build and operationalise the infrastructure required to meet the SDGs.

Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for sustainable development at the University of Cambridge, said the total expenditure approach was important in relation to water but the sector and society needed to go much wider than that. “The basket of stakeholders involved should be broadened so that we take into account the environmental consequences of what we are doing,” he said. Making a plea for engineering not to be seen as secondary in addressing the world’s water challenges, Guthrie said that he thought that engineers should take more ownership of decisions that are made by others on society’s behalf. “We are not merely technologists, we are much more than that,” he said.

April Gu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, talked about the shift towards a decentralised approach to water treatment and what this meant for the industry. “We recognise that there are more challenges with the way we now deal with water quality, with the rise of emerging contaminants, antibiotic resistance and all these challenging issues need to be addressed by the industry using technology,” she said. Asked how universities could help FIDIC, engineers and stakeholders come together and share information to improve progress and the perception of the value of water, Gu said that there was a growing emphasis in the curriculum on industry and community engagement and that digital approaches including AI were having an impact on teaching in this area too.

Jeshika Ramchund, lead engineer (developments) at Bosch Projects, talked about the role and importance of tomorrow’s engineers and the fact that sustainability is not merely a consideration but a core part of their approach. “We need to join up the great initiatives going on in the technology sector with industry practice – you don’t learn this from a textbook!” she said. Ramchund also said it was important to stress the urgency of the situation facing the world on water issues, as Graham Pontin had highlighted when he spoke. She also said that it was crucial that engineers acted as trusted advisors with clients and asked the challenging questions on projects that needed to be addressed.

Asked about how customers could be engaged to better understand the value of the sustainability and environmental aspects of water and not just what ‘comes out of the tap’, Natalie Muir, general manager (water and environment) at Cardno, said: “We need to change the discussion and become more proactive about highlighting the key issues,” she said, highlighting the role of citizens’ juries in Melbourne that had helped to educate the public and “bring them on a journey” which had really got a positive message across. Reflecting on how the business case for water might change following Covid, Muir said that there were some positives in that people were becoming more environmentally aware but that changed living patterns would have an effect on the water sector. “Hopefully post-Covid we will have an opportunity to change the conversation on water use and management in a positive direction,” she said.

Miguel Mondria, chief technology officer at TYPSA, talked about the innovative technologies out there to help, individuals, companies, governments manage and value their water usage better. Making the case for greater sustainability, he also stressed the need for better governance in the way that water management systems are run. “We need open source and interoperable systems and we also need to support these with adequate and effective training,” Mondria said. He also spoke about the adoption of the Water Framework Directive and the lessons to be learned from that. “Water management strategists need to find the right mix of pricing and non-pricing instruments to get things right,” he said. This would inevitably mean greater dialogue between stakeholders, including end users, he said and there was still “an awful lot of engineering to be done” in this area too.

As ever, there was an abundance of questions in the chat during the webinar. These included many on the need to move beyond current measurement and assessment methods towards a more holistic ‘whole-life’ approach to the natural environment. This could lead to difficult conversations with economists, who often took a more straightforward financial assessment of costs and value but it was a conversation that needed to be had according to those raising the issue from the audience.

Summing up the event, FIDIC president Bill Howard echoed a point made by April Gu, saying "If we don't succeed in this area then we won't be around in the future," he said. "The way we will succeed and get things done is via dialogue with the people who matter, including politicians, governments, financiers, but also not forgetting the non-technical world. Let's get better with our communications and dialogue and understand society's needs," Howard said. 

The next FIDIC webinar is Developing a commitment to quality in construction projects which takes place on Tuesday 6 April 2021 at 12 noon CET. Please register your place as soon as possible as we expect another large turnout for this event.

Click here to book your free place at the FIDIC webinar, “Developing a commitment to quality in construction projects”

Click below to view the webinar recording for Establishing the value of water - the business case for change. 

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