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Bouncing back: the water sector, post-pandemic

"If we are bold, brave and collaborative, we can ensure a sustainable water network for us and for many generations to come," writes Joe Roebuck, Gen's Global Water Director

We moved into 2020 with great enthusiasm for a new decade of innovation in the water sector—instead we are now facing one of the biggest challenges of our lifetimes to keeping our taps running with water and making sure our homes are free of waste.

But rather than focusing on the considerable problem of COVID-19 and all it entails, this thought piece instead takes a more positive outlook of all that we learned during this time of lockdown in order to help the sector bounce back better than before. Specifically, we will explore how the use of data, analytics and digital tools can set the foundations for a brighter, cleaner, and more resilient future.

The state of things

For some time now, water companies have been using decision support tools and advanced mathematical algorithms to help them predict future serviceability. This dates to the capital maintenance planning common framework (CMPCF), which, as far back as 2002, challenged water companies to forecast future performance when making investment decisions. Since then there has been evolutions of innovation in the industry, and Arcadis Gen has certainly been at the heart of this with our very own Enterprise Decision Analytics (EDA) software.

The UK water sector in particular is generally seen as a global leader in the Asset Investment Planning (AIP) space, thanks in part to regulatory changes, increasing scrutiny on water bills, and the application of more customer-centric views. Many incredibly powerful models now exist across this sector to help local water companies better predict pipe bursts, pinpoint high-risk sewers and asses water demands real-time. But how did this all stand up during the COVID lockdown?

Of old challenges and new problems

The challenges are, as of time of writing, still are large. While we all rightly applaud the National Health Service every Thursday for their amazing work saving lives, there are also plenty of unsung heroes in the water sector. People who brave the front lines to ensure that clean, flowing water still comes out of the country's taps. People whose jobs became increasingly difficult as demand for water skyrocketed as hygiene and sanitation became a matter of life-and-death. People who also had to contend with a water demand that was once only expected of the weekend, but now became the norm for all seven days of the week as folks stayed at home while the sun shone bright, got their gardening gloves on, and dove headfirst into summer activities.

We got the “lockdown drought” of 2020 which saw up to 25% more water demand than what we have ever seen before. It was enough for UK Water to issue a statement to the public urging caution in water use:

People's patterns of using water have changed with the weather - and more people at home because of COVID… In some places water demand is said to be 25% higher than normal. Reservoirs are still in a healthy state, but some firms can’t get enough water to the taps and pressure is dropping.Water UK, May 2020


Predictive demands, real time

Even the water companies that utilized the most sophisticated machine learning AI to predict levels of service and water demand, experienced variables in the model never before seen. We simply never had a lockdown and a drought all at the same time in recorded history. Therefore, any model based on historic data is likely to struggle to predict the future.

This is where the ability to rapidly refresh predictions and introduce new variables into the analytical models is indispensable. Isolating the specific lockdown period and calibrating machine learning AI models to immediately account for new developments, allows water companies to remain one step ahead of the problems of a lockdown drought. Furthermore, as we look to bounce back into the future, we can be well ahead of any subsequent waves and ensure appropriate actions are in place to keep our taps running. And here at Arcadis Gen, we provide the digital tools, analytical techniques and industry expertise to make this a reality.

Securing long term future of the network

There is also a lesson to be learned about more holistic resilience planning. The whole of Ofwat 2019 Price Review cited resilience as one of the key pillars to a successful business plan. Although perhaps at that time, no one realized that a global lockdown due to a pandemic was a potential hazard on the horizon, and therefore focused on resilience against the usual suspects like climate change, fires, cybersecurity, et cetera, et cetera.

Now that we know better, our new bounce back strategy should now carry a full assessment of resilience against even more unexpected occurrences like epidemics or pandemics, or indeed any other hazard that could potentially lead to staff and customers being locked in their homes for sustained periods of time.

At Arcadis Gen, we promote a systems-based view to this resilience assessment using our EDA Resilience module and industry leading methodology. This incorporates the best in breed methods from the UK cabinet office and US homeland security. By analyzing the scale, duration, likelihood, and vulnerability to future epidemics we can then assess this against the 4R Control Factors: redundancy, response/recovery, resistance and reliability. By systematizing this assessment, we can link it to water companies service measure/value frameworks and derive resilience metrics that are relevant to future performance commitments and decision making.

Managing immediate delivery issues

While trying to bounce back from the effects of the pandemic, water companies may find themselves well behind schedule in terms of delivery of schemes for year one of the asset management planning (AMP) cycle. There is of course the strong need to understand the potential impact of delayed investment on their serviceability to customers, particularly in the long term. Before this however, they need to figure out what they can do get back on track.

The need for rapid re-optimization of investment plans is now greater than ever before. We need to start considering factors we may not have done before. Which schemes can be started and progressed under social distancing rules? Which of the deferred strategies should be kick-started sooner rather than later? Which steps planned for later in the AMP now need to be brought forward immediately?

If such re-planning has to be done on a manually over a myriad of spreadsheets and take days in order to run a suite of different what-if investment scenarios, then the company unfortunately still lacks the flexibility to overcome both short- and long-term challenges, and may be hard-pressed to bounce back—if at all.

This is where a third party expertise becomes a life-saving investment. Here at Arcadis Gen, we offer a range of digital tools that can support water companies in this capacity. For those looking to step away from traditional spreadsheets and older generation technologies but are understandably hesitant to commit to full-blown, expensive enterprise-level products, our Water Visual Optimizer may be the perfect solution. Water-VO provides an immediate opportunity for water companies to reassess their asset investment plans, and delivers rich visualizations and optimization results in seconds, capable of making in-meeting decisions that actually stick. Water-VO also compliments our larger enterprise solution, EDA, which provides an integrated and comprehensive business-as-usual planning solution, for when you're ready to take that next big step.

A positive future

We all know that 2020 has been tough for so many reasons. But as there is a silver lining in every cloud, there are a great many valuable lessons to be learned from these trying times. With the right perspective and the right tools to better assess the situation, the water sector can gain many valuable insights that will help us set the foundation for future success, particularly through digital innovation. If we are bold, brave and collaborative, we can ensure a sustainable water network for us and for many generations to come.

Arcadis Gen is committed to that goal. Learn more about our pioneering techs and solutions that can help you navigate the current COVID landscape as well as the post-pandemic world.


Joe Roebuck

Joe Roebuck,

Global Analytics Leader

With over 20 years experience in the water, energy and transport sectors, Joe intends to keep pushing the envelope so sectors, particularly water, can make the best use of their data and analytics to meet current and future demands.

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