World Water Day is a good opportunity to think about how water will be impacted by climate change. This includes looking at opportunities and threats, and what organizations can do to prepare for a future that may be very different from today. We asked three of WSP*’s professionals to weigh in on water resilience and climate change. Here’s what they said.
Hu Fleming, Director of Water Strategy and Sustainability
Bottom line: “It’s important to understand the short- and long-term impacts of climate change and design accordingly.”
When it comes to climate change, it’s important to realize that there are short- and long-term effects.
The short-term impacts are showing up in the challenges related to stormwater management, where governments and businesses need to protect people and assets from flood risks. This can give rise to business-interruption issues. Some industries are particularly vulnerable to stormwater challenges, such as mining where open-pit mines or underground mines experience flooding.
Another impact of excess water is the need to treat or discharge that water, or both. Both public and private owners of water treatment plants can face challenges. Many treatments plants have clarifiers and storage tanks with open tankage, where the top is open to precipitation. This means that drinking water plants, wastewater treatment plants and large biological treatment facilities are susceptible to flooding because they can overflow. For example, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas in 2017, the city’s wastewater treatment plants were impacted, and a good deal of their drinking water supply affected, because the clarifiers were flooded.
Because the short-term impacts of climate change include fluctuations in water availability, organizations also need to consider the impacts of too little water. When water is scarce, everyone is vulnerable, and this is especially an issue in the southern hemisphere. We’ve studied the situation, and while the northern hemisphere tends to have more water, the southern tends to have more drought. It’s quite a striking difference between the two halves of the globe.
The impacts of too little water are particularly challenging for water-intensive industries like mining. In the southern hemisphere, where water is already limited, the global mining industry is intent on finding ways to work with local communities to implement water sustainability practices to conserve this important resource. Other water-intensive industries need to prepare for a world of increasing water shortages and implement water sustainability as well. The beverage industry is a prime example, because water is a primary ingredient. For example, in India, beverage companies and other users are vying for water resources that are already depleted by urbanization and agricultural irrigation.
Water is an important resource for other industries that people often don’t associate with water, like the manufacturing, automotive, technology, and power sectors. And we must remember another important industry: agriculture consumes more than 50% of all the water in the world. When you have a drought, you lose food production. The nexus of food and water is very significant and must be addressed.
Whether facing the challenge of too much water or not enough, proactive organizations are able to increase their resilience to climate change by planning for the short- and long-term environmental, economic and social impacts of water stewardship.
Janya Kelly, Climate Change and Air Quality Specialist
Bottom line: “It’s not possible to stop water at borders or property lines, so the solution shouldn’t stop there either.”
It’s important to keep in mind that water is used not just by industry, but also by the communities they serve, so the best solutions should consider surrounding communities. When industries and communities work together to plan for the impact of climate change on water, there are two aspects to consider.
The first consideration is that extreme storm events may inundate locations with a lot of excess water. This means that organizations need to have plans in place so they can mobilize staff quickly to deal with that influx and confirm that there are no negative effects on the surrounding environment, and that the organization is in compliance with any permits.
Second, organizations will need to understand the local community’s water resources and expected demand to understand how industry’s usage impacts the local community. Creating relationships within the community helps the organization understand everyone’s water needs under current and future conditions. It’s important to think about questions like: Can processed water be recycled? Can it be cleaned and discharged for alternative uses within the community?
Changing – like seasonal higher temperatures and evapotranspiration – may also impact the amount of water available, leading to drought conditions. In this case, proactive organizations can store water from other months in the year when there’s an abundance of water through storms or snow melt. Can this run-off be stored so that the organization is not affected by a seasonal water shortage? This way, operations continue without any strain on the surrounding water resources.
Finally, there are concrete steps that organizations and communities can take to improve their ability to deal with changing climate. Water balance modeling can help industries and communities see how water flows through a worksite or neighborhood and answer important questions like: How does water flow under current conditions or, potential flood conditions, and how is it likely to flow under future climate conditions?
It’s not possible to stop water at borders or property lines, so the solution shouldn’t stop there either. Climate change is affecting water, so communities and industries worldwide need to adapt and plan accordingly.
Sean Capstick, Principal and Senior Climate Change Specialist
Bottom line: “While the future state of climate change is uncertain, the steps organizations need to take are reassuringly familiar.”
It’s not a business-as-usual world anymore. The climate-related patterns, such as temperature and rainfall, that organizations rely on for day-to-day operations are changing. By taking appropriate steps now, organizations can give themselves more flexibility to respond to changes, rather than being forced into limited choices – or no choice – in the future.
While the future state of climate change is uncertain, the steps organizations need to take are reassuringly familiar. It’s standard risk-management practice, which includes understanding the probability of an event happening – such as rainfall above a certain volume and duration – and factoring in the consequences to determine what action or response should take priority.
In climate change, at least in the short term, the variable factor is probability. We will still get rainstorms, snowstorms and freezing rain, but the frequency and intensity of these events are likely to change. For example, consider winter in Ottawa, often called the world’s coldest national capital (only Moscow is colder). The municipal government, industry and other organizations in the region are accustomed to a certain volume of snow falling on their rooftops.
Snow will continue to fall in Ottawa, but what may change is that more warm spells occur in the typically cold months, such as February. This can produce what meteorologists call a “rain-on-snow event.” The snow absorbs the water and starts to melt – becoming heavier and putting more of a strain on the roofs than they were designed for. There will also be water flowing off the roofs– more than has been usual for February – and this can mean that stormwater management ponds get filled up, not just when the snow melts in March or April, but earlier in the winter.
This may call for steps such as deepening retention ponds or raising the retaining dams (or both) and making changes such as piling snow elsewhere on a property. These steps need to take the property owner’s interests into account, and consider how the unusual volume of water may impact the neighboring community and the health of nearby watercourses.
Even if these climate change and water events occur, good risk management methodologies can go a long way toward making sure your organization can survive — and even thrive — with the changes to come, and potentially create a positive influence and impact for the surrounding environment and community.
About the authors
Dr. Janya Kelly is an Air Quality and Climate Specialist and has over eight years of experience in air quality and climate change in a variety of industry sectors. Dr. Kelly has been the climate change lead on a number of projects, with a primary focus on climate change and adaption, and secondary focus on climate change mitigation through greenhouse gas emission reduction. She also has experience in air dispersion modelling using multiple regulatory approved models ranging in complexity from screening models to regional scale chemical transport models.
Dr. Hubert Fleming is Director, Water Strategy and Sustainability. He is formerly Head, Water Management, for Anglo American. Hu has nearly 40 years in the water industry, and has served as Chair, ICMM Water Committee, Chairman, NATO’s Task Force on Environmental Affairs, as well as the US EPA Clean Water Act Advisory Panel.
Sean Capstick, P. Eng is a Principal with more than 25 years of environmental compliance experience who provides specialized expertise on strategic and regulatory advice to clients regarding Climate Change. He is WSP*’s Global Sustainability and Climate Change Technical Community Leader and is a member of the External Advisory Panel for the Canadian Centre for Climate Services’ (CCCS) whose mandate is to distribute climate data for developing Vulnerability Assessments and Adaptation Plans.
* This work was performed by Golder professionals who joined WSP in an acquisition completed in 2021.