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Climate change presents many challenges for utilities. One of these challenges is how they make decisions about the water systems of today in the face of an uncertain future

Forward-looking and responsible utilities need to step back and understand how their current systems will perform under varying future scenarios.

Here, I share my thoughts on how utilities can prepare their water systems for an unknowable future by considering:

  • How climate change will impact water systems
  • The importance of the nuances of water systems
  • Simulating future scenarios using Digital Twins
  • Factors beyond infrastructure
  • How to prepare to make decisions about the unknown

In order for utilities to prepare for climate change and how it may stress or impair their ability to deliver services, they need to understand and look at their systems as a whole.

An important component of a utility system is the distribution system. This is essentially the pipe network that delivers treated water to the end customer, and this needs to be explored in terms of how climate change could affect it. By developing different and plausible future climate scenarios using climate data and by performing stress tests, utilities can get an idea of how well their systems will be able to perform and how they will respond. 

These types of tests will also highlight any existing vulnerabilities that might be amplified by these scenarios, and will help to identify any new ones. Utilities will also be able to begin to identify some of the adaptation options and operational changes available that can be deployed to address those new or amplified vulnerabilities.

Understanding the nuances of their water systems

Climate change will play out differently in different parts of the world, which means that there are no common directions or guidance on how to address it.

Utilities need to be thinking about how extreme conditions are likely to manifest themselves in the areas in which they operate and begin testing their system against those extreme conditions. For example, how will higher temperatures resulting from climate change affect the rate of demand? Can your distribution system match this demand?

Water quality issues are also an important consideration within distribution systems, including any lag time that water may have in the distribution system. These are areas where it will be really useful to build and tap into the tacit knowledge that utility operators have of their system — historical data can be really useful in this regard, too.

Simulate future scenarios using Digital Twins

Digital Twins are a great mechanism to enable the stress testing of water systems. Qatium is an example of a digital platform that enables the creation of Digital Twins and allows utilities to run simulations of their systems in a safe, virtual environment.

Running scenarios that could represent conditions brought about by climate change helps utilities see how their systems would perform and is a great tool for both drinking water and wastewater utilities. 

Utilities need to take crucial action in building the digital muscle that is going to be essential for them to be able to leverage their network. Harnessing the copious amounts of data that many utilities have and aggregating it into a digital platform enables them to simulate future conditions. From this, they can begin to prepare accordingly, and the simulations can effectively influence decisions related to both capital and operational planning.

Begin to consider factors beyond infrastructure

Utilities are an infrastructure-intensive sector, often making investments that will endure 30 to 40 years ahead — and their effective operational lives can often be even longer. Because of this, there’s a predisposition to think about adaptation to climate change in the context of how to manage, change, and invest in new infrastructure.

While infrastructure will need to be part of the solution, there are also other levers to push, including financial levers. For example, are there financial tools that can be used to help manage customer behavior? Are there marketing tools that can also have a similar social effect? 

Plus, utilities also need to think about how they can use the landscape as part of their solution set. Urban utilities, in particular, need to think about how they can begin to leverage land-use decisions in a way that eases the burden on adaptation and increases the flexibility and capacity of their system.

This type of thinking begins to potentially take utilities out of their comfort zone — one where they’re focused on their system — and move them to a place where they can start to think about this system as part of a broader set of systems.

While some of the future challenges are incredibly daunting, they also represent an opportunity for utilities to rethink their role in their communities, how they might access other systems, and influence other systems to make it easier to prepare for and manage the impacts of climate change.

Be prepared to make decisions about the unknown

In the climate space, there’s a lot of discussion about decision-making in times of uncertainty. At the heart of this is knowing that trying to predict the future is not what we should be doing. Rather, we should be prepared for and acknowledge that the future is unknowable, and we should be making decisions that embed as much flexibility into decision making processes as possible.

This way, utilities aren’t making path-dependent choices. Utilities should be testing their decisions, and making sure their choices aren’t locking in a path dependency but embedding as much flexibility as they can for future decision makers. This will help them course correct should conditions manifest themselves in ways that are vastly different to their assumptions.

Of course, this is difficult to do with regards to infrastructure, and will be one of the main challenges for the service sector. This is where utilities need to start to feather in different strategies, push different levers that are complementary to hard infrastructure, and build in that flexibility to make adjustments over time.

Qatium experts

Paul Fleming is a water, climate, and tech consultant, a‌ ‌fellow‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌Alliance‌ ‌for‌ ‌Global‌ ‌Water‌ ‌Adaptation,‌ and ‌a‌ ‌member‌ ‌of‌ ‌a‌ ‌US‌ ‌National‌ ‌Academy‌ ‌of‌ ‌Sciences‌ ‌Committee‌ ‌that‌ ‌is‌ ‌advising‌ ‌the‌ ‌US‌ ‌Global‌ ‌Change‌ ‌Research‌ ‌Program‌. Paul is one of many experts that we co-create with Qatium.