The challenges of the water sector prove we need innovation more than ever 

Marc Hannis
20 March, 23

Last summer, the water sector in England and Wales faced huge challenges, with drought conditions across most regions and temperatures soaring to 40C. Parched earth affected underground pipes, triggering leaks and interruptions to supply for customers. And when the rain eventually came, the storms were severe and intense, causing localised flooding and overwhelming the capacity of parts of the wastewater network: leading to sewer flooding and unacceptable sewage spills onto beaches and into rivers. 

Problems like these could become more prevalent in future with the intensifying effects of climate change. As a sector, more needs to be done to anticipate and head them off. Yet the water sector is also a contributor to climate change. Not only does the sector need to contend with the consequences of climate change, it also needs to alter the way it operates to mitigate its negative impacts on the climate and the wider environment. 

Water is heavy – it requires a significant amount of energy to pump it at pressure through a network of pipes long enough to wrap around the equator nine times – and that’s just for mains water. The wastewater network is even longer, and requires more energy still to transport it and process it. In all, the Environment Agency estimates the water sector in the UK uses up to 3% of electricity generated in the country – as such it is responsible for a significant quantity of climate altering greenhouse gasses.  

Many of these challenges are not unique to the water sector – tackling pollution and environmental impact, adapting to the consequences of climate change and transitioning industry to net zero, could equally apply to many sectors. From urban planning to transport and agriculture to energy, new approaches and new thinking are delivering innovation with the potential to deliver benefits well beyond their sectors. 

There is immense potential for these bold ideas to revolutionise current practice in the water sector. This could range from introducing new ways of collecting and using data to accurately monitor pollution and emissions or new sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. It could include new methods to remove chemicals from wastewater without generating harmful bi-products, or new circular approaches to generate useful resources from wastewater – such as hydrogen and fertilisers. 

This is the impetus behind the Water Discovery Challenge. It is a new £4m competition open to innovators from industries outside of the water sector to put forward their bold ideas that can help solve some of the water sector’s biggest challenges.  

The Water Discovery Challenge is one of a number of prizes from the £200m Ofwat Innovation Fund which has been rewarding ambitious innovation to help deliver a sustainable future for the sector. However, this is the first challenge specifically calling on newcomers to the sector to apply. 

Although this might seem unusual, we know that some of the best ideas can come from the least expected places.  

For example, in the 1940s, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral was out walking his dog when he wondered why a certain type of weed kept catching the dog’s coat. Soon after, he came to the conclusion that whatever it was had the ability to secure objects in place – this led to the discovery and creation of Velcro, now used in everything from shoes to blood pressure cuffs.  

Similarly, in 1968, it was only when tasked with making the strongest adhesive possible that newly-recruited scientist Spencer Silver developed a glue strong enough to hold, but weak enough to be removed easily – with it, inventing the foundation of Post-It Notes. 

These examples may seem entirely unrelated to the type of change the water industry needs to see, but show exactly how some of the most disruptive, ground-breaking changes can come from unexpected sources – and that different sectors can learn from each other. 

Through the Water Discovery Challenge, up to 20 teams of the most promising innovators will be awarded up to £50,000 to develop their ideas, with expert support and mentoring from water companies. Up to 10 will go on to win up to £450,000 to turn ideas into pilots.   

We understand too that entering a new sector may seem a daunting prospect. To deliver the competition, we are working with innovation prize experts Challenge Works, alongside global engineering, sustainability and water sector experts Arup, and Isle Utilities. This means that in addition to financial incentives, successful teams will benefit from expert mentoring and capacity-building support, including access to insights and mentoring from water companies and support for scaling solutions for the extensive water network in England and Wales. 

The water sector knows that the challenges posed by climate change are only set to intensify. It knows that the transition to net zero needs to happen at pace. It knows that it must continue to reduce its environmental impact.  

As a sector, we also know that we can best achieve that by welcoming bright ideas from all corners, and reward innovations from industries beyond ours. All of us rely on a functioning, reliable and clean water network, we need to implement solutions to the sustainability challenges it faces to ensure it keeps delivering for everyone well into the future. 

The Water Discovery Challenge closes on 5 April 2023. To find out more and enter, go to: 

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