F for flooding?

Did the UK’s authorities fail its citizens over the December 2015 floods? Yes, sadly I think they did, and that’s what we’ll explore in our first Waterstink post of 2016.

Before tackling this though, two quick things. First, many people I know locally were affected by the Boxing Day 2015 flooding in particular. And as I write the danger of further flooding is again looming. I’m going to try to write as sensitively as possible, and I also don’t claim to have the final word here; there’s still a lot happening, and there are months of recovery ahead for many…

Second, I apologise for being so tardy! I’m very late wishing you a happy new year and I’m bringing you a different topic than originally planned. Based on our recent MOOC filming I was going to look at the surprisingly different information ‘treatment’ potential of some US water bills versus the UK ones I get from Yorkshire Water. Water regulation in the UK seems to be behind this, and there are interesting implications for sustainability; but that will have to wait.

To say events rather overtook my plans is an understatement. The UK’s ‘biblical proportions’ Boxing Day 2015 floods thankfully touched us only very lightly, but they did affect a great very many people, homes and businesses all around us. The extreme weather also affected communities to the East of us, such as Leeds and York, and hit Scotland (several times) and Northern Ireland (again, multiple times). I can’t recall so much of the country (an estimated 16,000 homes) being so simultaneously and significantly affected by flooding; it’s been truly shocking.

Photo: Fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.

Photo: Some fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.

River levels near us reached an extremely high level around Boxing Day 2015, as shown by the screenshot of data for our local monitoring station below:

Photo: Water levels in a nearby river were well above typical. Source: http://www.gauge.map.co.uk

Photo: Water levels in a nearby river reached well above their typical range. Source: http://www.gauge.map.co.uk

Official national data recently released have also confirmed my subjective, local impressions about how bad the weather conditions have been. The Met Office has described December 2015 as ‘an exceptional and record-breaking month‘, with:

  • A ‘provisional UK mean temperature‘ of 7.9C;
  • This being ‘4.1 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average‘;
  • Consequently making for ‘the warmest December in a series from 1910‘;
  • And even ‘1.0 °C warmer than the previous warmest December‘; and
  • Furthermore ‘also easily the warmest December in the Central England temperature (CET) series from 1659‘ (source: Met Office).

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has recently released a briefing note stating that December 2015 was:

‘[A]n extraordinary month in both meteorological and hydrological terms, with some of the most widespread and severe flooding witnessed in the UK. … persistent unsettled weather (including the named storms ‘Desmond’, ‘Eva’ and ‘Frank’) …. [caused] widespread and repeated flooding, bringing significant disruption to transport, utilities and agriculture and flooding over 16,000 homes in England alone. … The spatial scale of sustained very high flows was remarkable; many large catchments in northern Britain recorded their highest ever peak flows and/or monthly mean flows.’

The trend detailed in this briefing is also clear in the Met Office’s graph for the UK in December 2015:

Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.

Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.

Bringing things back to our local level, it’s worth quickly mentioning what happened with us. Well, a few days before Christmas I was to head towards London to sing with a national choir I’m in; my other option was to host a visiting musician from California (whom I’d met during my March 2015 trip to talk about our water MOOC at the Coursera partners conference).

Fortunately I decided not to be away from home and on 24 December picked up our musician friend. We had a rather uneventful drive back through Rochdale, Littleborough, Walsden and Todmorden. A few days later I planned also to re-unite him with an old friend so we’d head on through Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, towards Luddenden Foot. Before Boxing Day 2015 you’d be easily forgiven for never having heard of these places; as of now I imagine most people in the UK are aware of at least some of them, and have most likely seen this kind of terrible footage:

There were so many photographs of the devastation to homes and businesses that I don’t really want to my community’s misery by voyeuristically pasting them up here. Suffice to say I think just this one local shot below in essence captures how bad it was (this shot is by Craig Shaw Photography):

Photo: Flood water levels in Hebden Bridge, well above flood gate defences. Source: Craig

Photo: Flood water levels on the main road through Hebden Bridge reached well above the protection offered by flood gate defences. Source: Craig Shaw Photography.

You can hopefully see there just how high the flood water levels were, and how there was little hope of escaping them in parts of our community.

We were only briefly cut off on Boxing Day by the floods. A beck to the one side of our street breached its grit trap and culvert and started carving out pieces of nearby tarmac. Our street exit also blocked whilst helpful locals rushed out to clear blocked drains that threatened to leave our corner shop inundated. The Police arrived in a jeep and several more roads were closed off due to a damaged bridge, road subsidence, and road surface damage from landslides off nearby hills. The strangest experience though was the eerie blue sky the next day, and just how little visible evidence remained, on the surface at least, of the havoc wrought the day before:

Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert; right, the next day with eerie blue skies.

Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert, spilling out onto the main road; right, the next day, superficially all clear under an eerie blue sky.

The most frustrating thing, and again I’ve talked about this before, was the fragmentation of flooding responsibilities. I could see certain things unfolding and wanted to let the relevant authorities know; of course though I also didn’t want to divert resources from people who needed it far more than we did at the time! But it was Boxing Day so many services were unstaffed and unavailable, in spite of several emergency arrangements having been put in place.

The most heartening thing from these events, I must say, has been the local community response to the flooding. A Calder Valley Flood Support Facebook Group coordinated support for flooding victims and interaction with various authorities, and has been fundraising and many other positive and helpful things (even including organising people to guard against potential looters in the area… yes, I know, it’s vile to think of people preying on the vulnerable at times like this). Local volunteers were joined by others from far and wide, including from various faith groups, restoring ‘communities and faith in humanity‘. Others turned their energy to lift spirits with efforts such as this heartwarming video about the floods (with over 30,000 views at the time of writing):

Local volunteers and communities spared no efforts. But looking past this, local and national outcry did nevertheless surface about the UK’s flooding policies, planning and practices. Some made the link between local flooding incidence and apparent global inaction on climate change. Others looked back at an alleged history of inaction on land management on the moors above towns like Hebden Bridge that exacerbates flood risk (a point picked up again a few days ago on the BBC). Local councils reported pushing flood issues to the top of their agenda. Nationally there was questioning of whether’s the UK’s flood defences (and flood defence spending) were ‘fit for purpose’ and various flooding-related rows led to the resignation of the Chairman of the Environment Agency.

As Prime Minister David Cameron was heckled in York alongside estimates of £5bn cost from the floods (later revised down to around £1.3bn), and arguments raged over whether military spending or overseas aid should be ‘raided’ to prop up flood resilience budgets, George Monbiot launched into probably the most direct and eloquent criticism of the apparent overall mess of flood-related planning and policy in the UK. He penned a piece titled ‘This flood was not only forecast – it was publicly subsidised’, highlighting that:

  • Upstream land management policies, planning and practices, and landowner-influenced public drainage boards, ‘often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream‘;
  • [S]traightening, embanking and dredging rivers … [tends to] accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely‘;
  • Warnings about the danger of ‘drainage and burning of the grouse moors upstream‘, funded by farm subsidies, and reducing the water holding capacity of ‘bogs and deep vegetation of the moors‘ had been ‘actively disregarded‘;
  • The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly‘;
  • We need ‘more trees in the hills, and should let our rivers meander once more‘ to reduce the flow into populated areas; and
  • We’ve had a lamentable overall UK flood ‘strategy’ that has played out in an ‘orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: [with] grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging‘.

So far there has been a trickle of policy response to the emphatic points Monbiot raised (such as efforts to provide ‘funds for farmers who fight flooding‘). But given the probable pattern for our changing UK climate is exactly the kind of warmer, wetter winters, with sharper rainfall events that we have just experienced, it seems clear that:

  • Communities expect more to be done to prevent flooding; and
  • ‘Flood resilience’ likely needs re-thought from the ground up.

Things failed so seriously, and in so many places within such a short period at the tail end of 2015, that the UK’s flood-related planning, policy and strategy cannot be left as the under-funded, fragmented and piecemeal, party political football it has been for so long. There must now be far more strategic attention to land use management and permitting, to evidence-based flood defences (natural and constructed), to maintenance of storm drainage infrastructure, to evidence-based deployment of appropriate watercourse modification (dredging, meandering), and to support for new designs, re-designs and retrofitting of homes, businesses and landscapes in flood prone areas of the UK.

Having been peripherally involved in some water policy and regulation issues in the UK in the past, I’m aware that this process will be slow and long. Continued pressure and momentum will be essential along the way.I hope we’re up to the challenge, and that flood-related impacts like the ones we’ve just seen can be successfully averted in future.

Duncan Thomas

Update: Just as I was due to post this piece up, another positive local effort happened; I was privileged to take part in Todmorden Choral Society’s repeat performance of Handel’s Messiah. Participants waived their usual fees and all proceeds will go to our local Calderdale Flood Relief Fund. Great stuff!

Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!

Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!

More green screen for our water MOOC

We’ve been back in the green screen studio for more filming this month. This is again in preparation for the launch of Part 2 of the Water Supply and Sanitation Policy in Developing Countries MOOC with Prof. Dale Whittington.


The current plan when we launch in late-Spring 2016 seems to be that both our earlier Part 1 and the new Part 2 will be available ‘on demand’. So if you’re interested in taking the MOOC for free and did not get a chance to join us in Part 1 you will be able to do that before doing Part 2. And if you did Part 1 and have been waiting for Part 2, the full set of Part 2 content will all be available at launch.

Our platform for the MOOC, Coursera, has indicated that having courses ‘on demand’, without set scheduled start dates and sequencing helps learners to take courses when they want to, and for learners to complete MOOCs flexibly at their own pace, fitting in with other demands on their time. Overall I think it’ll be good to move to this format.

This latest session of Part 2 filming looked at:

  • Water tariff issues, such as what tariffs attempt to achieve, different forms of tariffs, and issues of tariff reform;
  • Privatisation, including forms of private sector participation (or public-private partnerships) and some comparative experiences from China and India; and
  • Information treatments to try to change household behaviours towards water and sanitation services in beneficial ways.

Early next year I’ll be taping some more material on the privatisation and regulation experience of the UK over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to that.

Lastly, we did some new intro videos for both Part 1 and Part 2. Hopefully these clearly state what each MOOC is about and what learners can expect if they take them. We hope they’ll help us to attract large numbers of learners again for these free courses when they launch next year!

Duncan Thomas

Thinking global, acting local: Plumbing perils and Cowspiracy

I’m still partially out of action due to newly expanded family tiredness so I hope you’ll forgive me but it’s another multiple post this time, as I’m struggling to keep to a regular posting schedule for the time being…

Plumbing perils at home

A weeks back I had one of those ‘put your money where your mouth is’ or rather ‘put your mouth where the water is’ moments that I guess are fair for a ‘water’ person, as my friends, family and colleagues typically refer to me. One of our toilet flush units failed. With young ones under my care and no ideal repair services nearby I decided to fix it myself.

Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.

Photo: A bit of a mess, mid-fix during our recent plumbing peril.

The more I do DIY on our home I realise:

  • Building work on low budget, new build homes like ours can be really shoddy and rushed;
  • Even for a ‘new’ home, house designs, practices and technologies generally aren’t very ‘modern’ or sensible;
  • Houses should be easier for their own users to maintain, repair and enhance; and
  • Generally home fixtures and fittings are over-complicated, not built to last, and have fiddly, fragile (often cheap plastic) components.

All these observations applied to our toilet! The seal design on the flush inlet fill valve was poor, and hard to access, making a simple swap out of the rubber washer part tricky and likely to break the whole (plastic) assembly:

Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.

Photo: Our recently failed bottom entry inlet cistern filling valve (left) in our toilet. Taking the top off to replace the rubber washer proved impossible (for me at least!) so a full swap-out was necessary.

Where, how and presumably in what order the toilet had fitted in our bathroom also meant the side of the bath needed to come off for ever so slightly easier access, and the whole cistern had to come off the wall to allow me to be able to unscrew the inlet valve:

Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.

Photo: Problem area for our toilet repair shown in RED.

I was able to detach the bottom of the inlet assembly from the water supply pipe but physically couldn’t unscrew the plastic screw that mounted it to the cistern. No spanner in our house would fit and access through the inside of the cistern was impossible too. With a slightly different toilet design and more thought given the fitting placement, this whole task would have been a doddle. Instead I wasted several hours here, mainly working out how I was going to unscrew the old, failed inlet valve unit!

Thinking a bit more global from this local water-related incident, it made me think about whether passive or active technology in houses is best (after all, the passive so-called ‘flush-and-forget’ approach of most households to domestic water and sanitation infrastructure  is lamented by water companies, policymakers and academics). I remembered my colleague Prof. Kevin Anderson more than a decade ago working on an idea for houses where room functions would be rotated, season by season to fit best with the changing climate throughout the year. This would be like ‘spring cleaning’ in that you move your lounge area to the inside of the house to make it easier to keep warm in winter, then move it back towards the outside of the home in summer. This would be a seriously active, mindful and hands-on home to be in, and would increase connection to the seasons, I expect.

Anaerobic digesters for the home could be another option here – even home composting (although I’ve read up on that before and it’s surprisingly more work than most people might think to start it off and keep it going effectively). Awareness, agency and training would be necessary here of course otherwise there’s more chance of things going wrong. Our home, and many others in the UK no doubt, is quite passive – even though we have more eco-features than the average home. All our water fixtures and fittings are decidedly passive, fit-and-forget types though, in my opinion. And probably they are likely to cause us trouble in future (leaking glycol from our solar hot water I’m betting will be next) that we are not trained up to deal with. This is both disappointing and disempowering and leaves us with fewer options to manage actively the operation and maintenance of our home.

‘Cowspiracy’ on the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture

Thinking even more globally about things that could be changed locally, last month I got the chance to see the documentary film, Cowspiracy that’s now on worldwide release on Netflix (stating the obvious, but that’s a link behind a paywall).

Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source: Cowspiracy.com.

Photo: Cover materials for the Cowspiracy documentary. Source: Cowspiracy.com.

I’ve been interested in ‘virtual water’ or the water footprint embedded in the goods and services we consume based on how much water they consume to be produced wherever they have originated from in the world. I’ve previously co-written ‘virtual water’ materials on sustainability for engineers courses at the University of Manchester. I’ve also heard Stockholm Water Prize winner Prof. Tony Allan give a guest lecture here on his virtual water concept. I recall he said then that people giving up or eating less red meat was one of the most powerful ways to reduce our water footprints; the water footprint of rearing cows for beef products is simply that high.

Cowspiracy is not a perfect documentary or a fully satisfying watch. It has a bit of a ‘straw man’ opening and set-up for the film, with the idea that NGOs working on global sustainability issues conspire deliberately not to tackle the water and carbon footprints of animal agriculture, and instead target less controversial, more incremental transitions in say, personal water use patterns, personal waste recycling, personal transportation. Those who do tackle animal agriculture end up sued, ostracised and/or dead, Cowspiracy would have you believe. This seems a little hard to swallow but by the end of the film I did find myself quite won over and it is definitely worth a watch. Even if the NGOs in the film are not deliberately avoiding animal agriculture issues, their strategies towards it do appear to be suspect and I think there’s every reason for a prominent, global NGO to tackle these issues head on, and take a more radical ‘transition’ stance.

There’s a resource website to accompany the film and even if you don’t have the time or access to watch the documentary, it’s worth a peek. The 2009 Worldwatch Livestock and Climate Change report cited in the film is interesting – and claims that ‘livestock and their byproducts account for … 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions‘. Beyond that source the Cowspiracy infographic is a revealing summary of the film’s main points:

Photo: Cowspiracy inforgraphic. Source: Cowspiracy.com.

Photo: Time to go vegan! The Cowspiracy documentary resource website infographic. Source: Cowspiracy.com.

In a nutshell Cowspiracy claims that eating less or no meat locally would have a dramatic effect on currently unsustainable water and carbon footprints globally if enough people chose to do so. It seems like a fair point to me.

Overall the more material like this comes to my attention, the more I think a career in alternative agriculture might be a better use of my time than some of the things I currently do! (I also heard about the very low water use and flexible growing geometry characteristics of aeroponics for the first time recently due to some student work I was assessing; that sounds very promising.) Just as with our advocacy here for more radical innovation inside the water sector itself, more radical technology transitions that actively involve all of us outside of it too need a more prominent place, to lead us to a better world for both now and the future.

Duncan Thomas

California, crypto and carbon

The past few months have been rather occupied with a new addition to our family so you’ll forgive me but I’m going to catch up a bit here by combining a few posts into one.

California drought cont’d: P.I. evidence to accuse ‘Magnum P.I.’

Photo: Tom Selleck. Source: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo: Tom Selleck. Source: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Following on from my recent post on dipping into the California water drought I was bemused to see a 9 July 2015 BBC news story about actor Tom Selleck accused by the Calleguas Municipal Water DistrictVentura County ‘of stealing water for his [60-acre avocado] ranch in parched California by raiding a public hydrant‘.

A day earlier The Daily Mail had stated that Selleck and his wife were ‘accused of dispatching a white truck to a neighboring valley at least 12 times since 2013 to retrieve gallons of precious water, which is in short supply during the historic drought … even after they were issued with a cease-and-desist notice‘ and that ‘the Sellecks continued to swipe tankloads from Thousand Oaks to bring back to Hidden Valley in Westlake Village‘.

Surprisingly the Mail seemingly did not pick up the irony that the former Magnum P.I. star was being asked to pay ‘$21,685.55 to cover the cost of their [Calleguas’] private investigator, plus legal costs and an injunction‘! The P.I. to ‘catch’ ‘Magnum P.I.’ had been brought in after ‘Ventura County Sheriff’s Department also investigated and was unable to establish a crime occurred‘ according to the BBC’s story.

Typically, reports from 10 July 2015 onwards that Selleck had reached an agreement over the matter were not given the same ‘headline’ treatment as were the original accusations. A few days later (16 July 2015) the at first confidential details of that agreement were revealed: Selleck would pay back the full amount after a ‘3-0 vote, taken in a closed session, was held [by Calleguas Municipal Water District] with two board members absent‘ to accept this reparative action.

Throughout the reporting there were multiple references to the irony of Selleck having said of avocadoes, back in People magazine in 2012, that ‘I don’t eat ’em … Honestly, they make me gag. But it’s just as well. I’ll sell my portion.’

(This story sitting squarely in the ‘entertainment’ section for most news outlets also meant being ‘treated’ to some glitzy details about the 70-year old actor’s nearly 90-year old ranch that he’d apparently bought ‘in the late 1980s‘ and had been ‘previously owned by Dean Martin‘ before Selleck renovated it by ‘installing a seven-car garage, helicopter pad, putting green, tennis and volleyball courts and a playhouse for his daughter … with running water and electricity‘!)

Crypto outbreak: Boil water notices in Lancashire, England

On the less ostentatious side of the water news United Utilities made the BBC headlines last week (7 August 2015) after their ‘[r]outine tests … found traces of cryptosporidium at Franklaw water treatment works outside Preston‘ following which UU ‘used BBC Radio Lancashire, automated phone and text messages, social media, and even leaflet drops to warn its customers‘ spread across ~300,000 households in the area to boil their drinking water. The BBC/UU map of the affected area is shown below:

Photo: Lancashire area affected by the August 2015 UU crypto outbreak. Source: UU/BBC.

Photo: Lancashire area affected by the August 2015 UU crypto outbreak. Source: UU/BBC.

Yesterday the boiled water notice was still in force according to UU’s site, which confirmed that there were still traces of crypto ‘throughout the 2,500 miles of pipework in the affected area‘, and noted that UU’s actions were being coordinated with the Drinking Water Inspectorate and Public Health England. UU also explained that:

‘Franklaw water treatment works is now continuing to put its usual high quality water in to the local supply. As this clean water is entering the network, we are also continuing our work to clear every trace of the bug from the extensive network that serves the area. This network is around 2,500 miles in length and includes several storage reservoirs holding 500 million litres of water, so it takes time to refresh this huge amount.’

As picked up by the BBC, UU has committed to compensating its affected customers:

‘We will be compensating all homes and businesses who have been affected by the boil water advice notice, and once this advice is lifted, we will be contacting you. We’re looking at how we can make the compensation payments as easy as possible for all of our customers. Compensation for businesses will be looked at on a case by case basis.’

Crypto was a big issue for UU back when I was last talking in-depth with their staff around 2000, during my PhD research. Some technical people were advocating greater use of membrane filtration, to reduce the possibility of any outbreak in the first place. The alternative, or parallel approach was for better monitoring of crypto – i.e. more frequent tests and/or development of quicker diagnostic approaches to get a faster turnaround on samples. Quicker confirmation that you have crypto in your water samples of course is rather an after-the-horse-has-bolted approach. I do wonder what eventually happened… and its bearing on the current outbreak? (Note to self to check with Roger ASAP.)

Here’s hoping the situation improves soon and that the promised compensation satisfies all those unfortunately affected.

Carbon emission curiosities

A third matter that tied me up a little these past few weeks was looking at the carbon emissions of the UK water industry. Back in 2009 I posted about this topic here. I haven’t really revisited it – other than in our MOOC last year where I was mainly concerned about the general direction of travel based on projections in the 2010 Cave/Severn Trent Changing Course report, and some implications of the 2010/11 annual energy use of the sector (a staggering ~9,016 GWh!) as reported in the (now defunct?) Water UK Sustainability Indicators series.

Trying to find out more current and comprehensive details led me on to two useful reports, in particular. First, was the July 2010 Playing Our Part report from Ofwat. The framing here is the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. Ofwat estimates the UK water industry is responsible for about 1.1% of UK emissions (that probably being equated to ~5.01 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010/11 according to the above Water UK data). This apparently further breaks down into:

  • 0.7% from operational emissions (‘made directly or indirectly by the company in the day-to-day business of delivering drinking water and removing wastewater. For example, emissions resulting from burning diesel or purchasing electricity to pump water around a company’s distribution network‘); and
  • 0.4% from so-called ’embedded’ emissions (‘from the materials and activities related to the construction of the infrastructure companies need to deliver services, such as building a treatment works‘).

The Ofwat report also considers ‘other greenhouse gas emissions that the companies can influence but do not manage‘ like ‘emissions that arise in their supply chains or from the way that consumers use services‘ including ‘from a manufacturer producing the chemicals used in water treatment‘ and ‘as a result of consumers heating water in the home‘ (this latter domestic heating chunk I’ve seen fairly widely quoted as representing a further 4-5% of UK carbon emissions, about 24 MtCO2e).

There seems to have been a bit of a barren period following this Ofwat report – perhaps linked to the 2010 UK Coalition Government’s priority set – then in 2013 a very useful CIWEM report came out called A Blueprint For Carbon Emissions Reduction In The UK Water Industry. This built on the Ofwat work, further distinguishing and discussing various direct and indirect, regulatory and non-regulatory scope, operational and embedded carbon, and non-carbon emissions matters. (In it there’s a 2006/07 example for Anglian Water that – if my sums and understanding are correct – seems to suggest Anglian’s indirect emissions may be ~10 times higher than its direct ones, which is rather worrying!)

The CIWEM report also draws upon work by Professor Charles Ainger to show a desired trajectory for UK water industry carbon emission reductions, with a 3-4% a year total reduction needed to meet the Climate Change Act’s target for 2050:

Photo: Illustrated carbon emission reductions strategy for the UK water industry. Source: CIWEM 2013, p.36, after work by Charles Ainger.

Photo: Illustrated carbon emission reductions strategy for the UK water industry. Source: CIWEM 2013, p.36, after work by Prof. Charles Ainger.

UKWIR has also been active in looking at carbon, with a programme of work seemingly since 2004 on handbooks for operational and embodied carbon, and non-carbon emissions accounting. One particularly chilling point stressed in UKWIR research from 2009 though is that at that point so-called ’emission factors’ (EFs):

associated with methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from wastewater and sludge management dominate the overall uncertainty and true values might be up to 3 times higher or lower than the estimate.

In other words at that point there was significant accounting uncertainty about non-carbon emissions from the UK water industry (setting aside for a moment various broader concerns about the possible impact of these emissions on the climate system). Hopefully UKWIR’s ongoing programme has by now reduced this uncertainty somewhat…

Finally, there’s an upcoming WWT conference on water industry energy and carbon management next month that will hopefully keep these threads of interest and activity alive. Interestingly, the conference blurb states, ‘The UK water industry is a large consumer of energy and is responsible for 3% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions‘. So that’s either a misprint or else the sector’s emissions profile has trebled in the past three years…?

So that’s my recap and wrap-up on some water happenings of the past few months. Hopefully things will settle a bit in the coming weeks and I’ll be able to get back to my usual posting rhythm… Thanks for reading and stay posted!

Duncan Thomas

Heatwave? Check the drains!

With a heatwave forecast for today and tomorrow across much of the UK, being the kind of water person I am, my first thought was not to plan a barbecue but rather to check our drains!

Why so? Well, our sewers here are a kind of condominial design. Being sited at the end of a cul-de-sac, we’ve got four houses in one direction ‘feeding’ into the pipes under our property, plus another nine from another direction. Instead of each house feeding out to the mains sewer, shorter lengths of sewer connect each house, along a line, eventually to ours. (It’s not strictly condominial, in that we don’t have a community agreement about ownership and/or maintenance of the pipes; fortunately that’s taken care of by the water utility after the private sewers transfer back in 2011, not long after we first moved in.)

13 households is a lot of users and a lot of sewer pipe potentially to get blocked and, if the temperatures are high enough for a long period, and there’s perhaps lower flow too, to create some unpleasantness that I’d rather avoid! So before things heat up I took a quick look under the covers at our surprisingly deep underground pipework:

Photo: Shot of our drains, showing clear flowing channels deep below.

Photo: Shot of our drains, thankfully now showing clear flowing channels deep below.

Photo: It's difficult to capture how far the drains go down, but it's at least 2-3 metres!

Photo: It’s difficult to capture just how far the drains go down, but it’s at least 2-3 metres.

These are ‘after’ shots, once I’d jetted a handful (ew!) of ‘obstructions’ in the ‘system’ away with some well-targeted watering-can shots using our stored rainwater. I can report there was evidence of grease, fat, toilet paper, baby wipes, large ‘deposits’ that I’d rather not name here, and even a few large pieces of toilet roll cardboard (how did they get there, I wonder?).

All seems well now,there are no arising offensive smells or ’emissions’, and I’m glad I did this little bit of maintenance. At the same time I’m aware I’m a bit paranoid on this issue because (i) I viewed – and realised the implications of – the drain plans before we bought this house and (ii) because of my line of work!

Most people don’t check or maintain their drains and sadly the first thing they tend to notice is sewage bubbling into their house or garden that has to be addressed by their water utility, as the BBC’s Watermen: A Dirty Business amply demonstrated when it aired last year. I can’t imagine it’s realistic – without some serious remote monitoring innovations – for water utilities to proactively preempt these kinds of blockages, so it would be good to see some education and support for homeowners and residents in keeping their pipework – especially if, as is typically the case now, it flows on to others’ – in good, working order…

Duncan Thomas

Dipping into the California drought

A few months back I presented with a colleague about motivations for university academics to engage with ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs). This was at the Coursera Partners Conference in Newport Beach, California (Coursera is the platform we worked with to share our water and sanitation MOOC at the University of Manchester) and this was their annual event for instructors, media teams, instructional designers and course administrators to meet and share insights with each other. It was also where Coursera presented some new platform features, mainly helping with their apparently desired transition to more courses being available at any time, ‘on demand’ to learners all around the world.

Photo: Presenting on motivations for academics to engage with MOOCs, Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.

Photo: Presenting at the Coursera conference 2015, California. Source: Coursera.

I found the event and setting very inspiring. By its very nature it was a magnet for some fascinating, passionate people – academics committed to ‘universal access to the world’s best education’ at low or no cost – and innovators in instructional design, course delivery, crowdsourced ‘citizen science’ and many were thought leaders in their fields. It was the largest, most concentrated gathering of creative, energetic and optimistic academics I’ve ever attended.

Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.

Photo: Audience at the Coursera conference.

For my panel I shared the floor with several ‘star’, early-adopter, near-evangelist MOOC instructors, including the legendary ‘Dr Chuck‘ (Charles Severance) who’s delivered software/programming courses on Coursera since it launched, and even has tattoos of each of the platforms he’s on!

Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Dr Chuck.

Photo: After-panel Q&A with MOOC star, Charles Severance (a.k.a. Dr Chuck). Source: Coursera.

Photo: Dr Chuck's platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.

Photo: Dr Chuck’s platform tattoos! Source: Coursera.

The whole event was bursting with a ‘can do’ attitude and outlook. I haven’t re-adjusted since returning to the UK. (A close friend who spent much time in California captured how I feel by likening returning from California’s disposition and climate back to the UK as being like ‘swimming through treacle’!)

Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.

Photo: Venue for the Coursera conference, Newport Beach, California.

I’ve spent many years researching and teaching sustainability issues. I thought I’d positively loathe Los Angeles and its infamous urban sprawl. I also now drive an electric car so felt even more alert to be headed to the ‘car city’, expecting smog and over-the-top consumer culture… The reality was anything but. I was positively entranced by the beauty of the place and approachability of the people, and can’t wait to go back.

Beyond all the palm trees, blue skies, expansive Pacific ocean vistas, immaculately manicured verges, positive people and shining facades though are the looming contradictions between population, climate and water resources in California. Other than a brief mention in an opening address, no one I met or heard speak at the Coursera conference mentioned the state’s daily-worsening drought conditions…

Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.

Photo: Romantic water aesthetics in California, overlooking the magnificent Pacific and Ocean. Photo: Scot Corrie.

The collection of videos below show the dramatic challenges for water resources for the ecosystem, the landscape and amenities; show celebrities being ‘drought shamed’ for their profligate water use; and discuss conflicts between agricultural, industrial and domestic water users that new policy efforts are trying to mitigate…

The story below about wealthy residents in Montecito bringing in truckloads of water in the dead of night – ostensibly oblivious to the socio-environmental situation around them – really struck me the most though; I wonder if these residents next visit nearby Butterfly Beach and try to hold back the tide…?

Voluntary, grant-supported replacement of water-thirsty grass lawns with sparser, drought-tolerant shrubs is one positive response to the drought in California, as seen in this National Geographic clip:

However it’s worrying to see a lack of awareness of the sky-high cost of building long pipelines across the country to try to address the drought. Actor William Shatner has been in the news promoting this idea, a costly approach with which China and Australia have also toyed in recent years:

What’s certain is that the coming year will be a challenging and revealing time for water policy in this part of the world, if indeed California has only ‘a year’ of water left as these sources above seem to suggest…

Duncan Thomas

Rewarding realistic water and sanitation in games?

We’re gearing up again for the next part of our ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC). It’ll be Part 2 of our Water Supply and Sanitation Policy course, this time looking at which policy interventions have worked, having covered baseline water and sanitation conditions in Part 1. One of things that has come up again is working out exactly how Dale and I should talk about sanitation, in particular; it remains one of those things not really touched upon in polite conversation.

Generally it’s rare that we see water and sanitation talked about much more broadly, let alone realistically depicted, in much of our popular culture too. This point even takes us right back to one of our first gripes here at Waterstink, on how ‘period dramas’ often omit the harrowing sanitation conditions of their times.

This reflection back got me thinking further; these days games are a widespread and incredibly lucrative part of popular culture… so how do they represent water and sanitation conditions? Do they do it well? Or like costume dramas, do they omit or overly romanticise things?

Gaming is now a massive global industry with tens of billions of US Dollars annual revenue, and has eclipsed film industry in terms of economic scale (in the UK, in the US, and globally). Hollywood actors do voiceovers (LOTS of them!), cameos or full-blown roles for them. The biggest games sell millions of copies. In games it’s very common nowadays to interact with astonishingly detailed and/or realistic renderings of all kinds of past, current and future day settings. For example here’s a fairly recent take on an 18th century Caribbean environment from the game, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag:

Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin's Creed Black Flag.

Photo: Remarkable aesthetic beauty of water, captured in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag.

Pretty, isn’t it? And it’s got water in it too! But do games ever go further beyond this kind of aesthetic use of water, as a kind of attractive backdrop? Do we ever get to see more detail about these aspects that are basic to human survival? Are water and sanitation integrated into the working design of all the dynamic, high resolution detail that has become so common in the games we might play these days?

From my limited experience, I’ve found that typically the character you play – in most genres of games where you can interact with an environment – is capable of doing many things. You can walk, run, crouch or crawl, jump, shoot or hit stuff, and sometimes you might eat… or even drink (albeit to regain ‘health’)… but very rarely in a game do you ever go to the toilet. In fact you might even struggle to find a toilet depicted in your specific game environment.

Well, what does that matter? Should we change this status quo? Could we make water and sanitation more a talking point through this immensely popular medium?

With the scale and complexity of global challenges around water and sanitation that we all face, I think we should. Along that line of reasoning, as a bit of a diversion from ‘normal’ posts here at Waterstink, I’m going to imagine there are awards for realistic water and sanitation in games, and look at just a few recent, more or less high-profile games that I think deserve special mentions in this regard. So let’s start with the water-and-sanitation-realistic-depiction-award for…

Best rural water and sanitation in a game

Not in the vanguard, but doing reasonably well here is the quasi-realistic, Himalayan-y, rural-y setting of popular, cross-platform bestseller Far Cry 4 (with 7 million sales as of December 2014, and a 85/100 score on Metacritic). Here and there Far Cry 4 does depict some examples of rural drinking water infrastructure:

Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.

Photo: Water taps in the game Far Cry 4.

This choice of piped water infrastructure is admirably quite realistic for the game’s mountainous setting. You could image a gravity-fed, piped water system from mountain springs actually being used here. In fact it looks very similar to a system that Dale showed in-class to our students last week at the University of Manchester, taken some a few years ago, in Bolivia:

Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.

Photo: Water taps at the end of a gravity-fed piped system in Bolivia. Source: Dale Whittington.

Far Cry doesn’t do quite so well with sanitation facilities though. The most you’ll see is some vague ‘huts’, sometimes accompanied with the sound of flies, that you can’t enter, and that are probably toilets. All in all they don’t really reveal anything at all about what are probably very basic sanitation conditions in this (stylised) part of the world:

Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.

Photo: A probable toilet in Far Cry 4.

Whatever they might look like inside, most likely these huts are not examples of improved sanitation facilities, such as a ventilated improved pit (VIP) latrine.

Best mega-city water and sanitation in a game

Now we move to modern day Hong Kong depicted in the remastered, Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition. Here there are toilets and sinks that you can use (albeit not pictured here in use for the sake of good taste, but the mere fact that you can use them causes my little one endless amusement – and led to much in-game handwashing afterwards for good practice!):

Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.

Photo: A toilet in a Hong Kong apartment, from Sleeping Dogs.

Good as this is, interactive toilets and sinks are about it though for Sleeping Dogs; no large-scale water or sanitation infrastructure in the actual city of Hong Kong seems to be shown.

Runner-up award: Sewers are not really for that kind of thing!

Sewers, oddly, have been a bit of a mainstay – almost obsession – for games for many years now. They are a popular game environment design choice in order to shortcut you from one game area to another, sometimes as subterranean living spaces for freakish characters, or simply a stealthy way to sneak you into some secure location. Sadly they are often shown unrealistically. Often they are laws-of-physics-defyingly large, like in the game Deadlight:

Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.

Photo: An impossible sewer structure in the game Deadlight.

Let’s contrast this with a Thames Water picture of a typical sewer:

Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.

Photo: Three sewer flushers down a London sewer. Source: Thames Water.

Now I know some storm drains and sewers are a bit larger than this one shown, but still Deadlight’s liberty with structures doesn’t exactly educate and inform younger people about the scale and extent of our underground sanitation infrastructure, does it?!?

An example of a gaming depiction of sewers as labyrinthian sneaking and traversal mechanisms is found in fungal-zombie, post-apocalyptic, character- and story-driven, bestseller The Last of Us (about 8 million copies sold up to 2014). Here are some shots of this part of the game in action:

Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).

Photo: Storm drain outflow in The Last Of Us (possibly a combined sewer outflow?).

Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head... he will need to in a few moments when he sees the size of the sewer structures just in front of him!

Photo: The Last Of Us game character Joel here is scratching his head… he will be doing a lot more of that in a few moments when he sees the remarkable size of the sewer structures in front of him!

Photo: Some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.

Photo: Joel then enters some kind of giant underground storm drain/sewer chamber in The Last Of Us.

Both The Last Of Us and Deadlight feature the ‘eccentric’ (to say the least!) character(s) using sewers/storm drains as places to live. Here’s an example note left behind by one such sewer ‘resident’ in The Last Of Us:

Photo: Even given there's been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt Ish is enjoying the sewers THAT much!

Photo: Even given there’s been an apocalyptic event, I still doubt incidental game character, Ish will be enjoying his life much as a ‘mole-man’ in these sewers!

Best representation of water and sanitation in a game

The best-picture ‘award’, if there were such a thing, for overall ‘most realistic representation of water and sanitation issues in a video game’ (technically, sub-category ‘urban’) would undoubtedly go to epic, sweeping, open-world, grime-n’-crime ‘simulator’ Grand Theft Auto V. It’s oddly heartening for me to find that probably the biggest selling games of all time (1 billion USD in sales in its first three days45 million copies distributed to retailers so far) takes a comprehensive view of (urban) water and sanitation infrastructure. Even more than that, it hints at some global water challenge issues here and there.

First of all, there are toilets in GTA V:

Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it's there...

Photo: A toilet in GTA V. Not usable directly, but at least it’s there…

There are also reservoirs and dams:

Photo: A reservoir in the game, with valve tower to the right and some possible recreational infrastructure to the left. In the background is the 'Vinewood' sign - GTA's take on Hollywood!

Photo: An in-game reservoir; valve tower to the right and some recreational platform to the left. Just visible in the background is the game’s ‘Vinewood’ sign – that’s GTA’s take on Hollywood…

Photo: A reservoir in GTA V.

Photo: Another large reservoir depicted in GTA V.

Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.

Photo: The dam holding back this reservoir in GTA V.

Some areas of GTA seem to indicate the raw water supply is under stress, such as in the drying up waterways leading away from the above dam:

Photo: Water flow drying up in GTA V; dam in the background.

Photo: Water flow seemingly drying up in GTA V; dam shown in the background. I get a sense here that the artistic design is suggesting that the river flow here may have been far more substantial in the past…

If you look you’ll also find rubbish discarded around the above river bed (presumably a take on the Los Angeles River) hinting at pollution issues.

Most impressive of all – and now I say this realising that you may find the actual content and gameplay of the whole GTA series quite objectionable – there’s a large wastewater treatment plant in-game that you can fully walk around and explore:

Photo: Wastewater treatment works in GTA V.

Photo: A wastewater treatment plant in GTA V.

Photo: You can climb up and dive right in some of the wastewater assets... not that you'd want to!

Photo: You can even climb up and dive right into these wastewater treatment assets… not that you’d want to!

Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.

Photo: Treatment lanes at the wastewater plant in GTA V.

The city storm drain system is also referenced directly in GTA’s stylised take on LA, ‘Los Santos’:

Photo: GTA's stylisation of the Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.

Photo: GTA’s stylisation of the canalised Los Angeles River and associated storm drain systems.

Photo: More iconic landmarks re-imagined in GTA's stylised 'Los Santos'.

Photo: More iconic scenery along the Los Angeles River as re-imagined in GTA’s stylised city of ‘Los Santos’.

Photo: Some social commentary in GTA too around this infrastructure...

Photo: Some scope for social commentary in GTA around this area too…

Frankly this level of attention to the actual workings of a city, and to bring out of the shadows the typically flush-and-forget, out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind aspects of urban life, is really commendable. What your average gamer thinks of these inclusions in GTA’s virtual take on Los Angeles, I’m not sure. But I think there’s potential here for participatory discussion and education about planning water and sanitation infrastructure, and about it and we need to adapt to and mitigate climate change factors (I could even see this kind of gamification of water and sanitation participatory planning, of sorts, as a prime candidate for MOOC-related materials!).

Overall I’m happy that gaming, as big and popular as it now is, does sometimes show water and sanitation infrastructure. The level of representation at the moment is a start only, of course. Many people may also shrug and ignore these admirably detailed efforts. But for me I think games have come a long way – and even show a positive way forward of sorts – by not overtly hiding and explicitly overlooking these assets that after all are so vital to our shared life and future together on this planet.

Duncan Thomas