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Water Team

Sweco UK


Natural systems thinking – whereby restoring and enhancing ecosystems can help us tackle the challenges facing society – has the power to change the game across water industry.

Here, our experts explore some of the foremost weapons in our Nature-based Solutions (NbS) armoury when it comes to driving sustainability and resilience, boosting natural ‘capital’ in particular across the water infrastructure and its assets.

1. Champion sustainable drainage systems (SuDS)

SuDS are an actionable way to tick multiple sustainability boxes, and are more than a means to solve drainage issues or improve flood risk management alone.

Within the concept of ‘Sponge Cities’ and the development of blue-green infrastructure in urban areas, SuDS in simple terms collect water and filter it slowly, lowering and delaying flow rates, into the ground, rivers or the sewerage system. While doing so they can improve water quality, promote biodiversity, reduce urban heat island effect, and increase the resilience of the built environment, to name just some of the typical associated benefits.

A wide range of SuDS exist,  for exampleg attenuation basins, swales, permeable pavements, soakaways, rain gardens, filter strips, and green roofs; appropriate SuDS solutions need to reflect the local context and built environment, manage constraints and maximise opportunities.

In 2024, SuDS are expected to become mandatory for new developments in England. And the now looming implementation of Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act in England means that lead local flood authorities will need to approve and adopt SuDS for which they often have no skills or finances, which makes it an imperative to enrol the help of partners with a ‘Thinking in the Whole’ approach.

2. Focus on nutrient neutrality

Nutrient neutrality is growing in importance as a nature-based solution, with a growing number of organisations exploring opportunities to control nutrients for example via integrated catchment management and nature-based solutions for water storage or treatment. The most progressive water companies are, for example, starting to introduce constructed wetlands on their sewage treatment works.

3. Collaborate on carbon sequestration

Carbon sequestration – which captures and stores atmospheric carbon dioxide – can be used to offset residual emissions to achieve the sector’s net zero targets and is possible across water works and infrastructure sites through the creation or restoration of woodland or peatland. In tandem, good soil management can even lead to the ability to use or sell carbon credits as a means of offsetting carbon for landowners.

4. Prioritise river restoration and remediation

Unsuitable engineering solutions can negatively impact on flood risk and the morphological processes of a river. This in turn and unsurprisingly, might harm habitats and biodiversity, water quality and the riparian and aquatic environment.

Giving space back to water e.g. unculverting, re-meandering, protecting and enhancing floodplain storage capacity and wetlands etc – is essential if we are to meaningfully integrate climate adaptation and biodiversity enhancement within infrastructure and development planning – both in terms of engineering and management. Applying river restoration techniques and integrate natural banks protection where feasible should also be uppermost in design.

5. Enhance natural flood management

Identifying and enhancing natural processes at catchment level to control flood waters and ‘slow the flow’ is the most sustainable solution to manage the effects of urbanisation and development, and provides a wide range of benefits beyond simple flood risk management.

For long-term resilience we should aim for sustainable land management with permeability at its core, protecting and enhancing the space for water also through sustainable development planning (e.g. Sequential Test). Achieving this goal requires an integrated approach, informed by a wide range of specialists and stakeholders, in line with the various points discussed in these pages.

6. Amplify biodiversity net gain (BNG)

BNG is becoming a critical as part of any meaningful EIA, with a view to promoting river, amongst other, habitats – and there is a requirement for all developments to achieve +10% net gain in biodiversity compared to their pre-development baseline. It is therefore critical to enlist the support of hydrologists, geomorphologists and ecologists to carry out River Condition Assessments, and more critically, to inform the design of river habitat improvements.

7. Promote water neutrality

The idea of water neutrality is to ensure developments and operations do not increase pressure on water resources. Last year – ultimately recognising the importance of their water footprint, Natural England put a moratorium to new developments in the Sussex North Water Resource Zone, with a challenge to prove that it would not cause increased pressure on water resources. This has stopped several local plans and raised concern about potential solutions amongst developers – a situation likely to be mirrored elsewhere as the importance of water resilience becomes more of a key issue.

Water neutrality requires water efficiency, reuse (rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling) and offsetting and at Sweco we see a great opportunity for an holistic approach which promotes water quality protection (e.g. wetlands, groundwater recharge) and re-use, where feasible, integrating surface water flood risk management and storage (e.g. basin full when needed for consumption, empty when needed for flood storage).

8. Enhance land management

How land is managed will have a major impact on water design, and with the right monitoring, reporting and verification of solutions also offers an opportunity for biodiversity net gain credits.

Improved land management practices might include choosing sustainable methods of farming versus industrial approaches (for example agroecology or agroforestry) using cover crops to increase soil carbon content and promoting soil health by lessening the amount of chemical fertilisers applied.

9. Consider coastal and marine design

Using natural solutions for flood and coastal management specifically can support localised economic growth through safeguarding fishing, tourism and raw materials industries. Natural flood protection, wave dampening and storm water runoff reduction can also mitigate the risk of erosion, pollution and natural habitat loss which in turn protects biodiversity as well as infrastructure.