Thought Leadership Piece: Hydro Nation Chair perspective on Forth-ERA

This article was written by UKWP members from the University of Stirling. The UKWP are proud to promote this ‘exemplar at scale’ piece of work.

Whether we like it or not, we have been shaped by our environment and we’re now living at a time when the environment is changing at a rate that is unique in our planet’s history.  Water is at the core of our life and economy and is also the primary medium through which we are feeling the effects of a changing climate.  Increasing global temperatures result in more evaporation and energy within our climate system. Across the UK we are witnessing the consequences of these effects through increasing rainfall intensity separated by ever prolonged periods of drought.

These hydrological extremes result in shocks to our natural and built environment and are accompanied with deterioration in water quality. Deteriorations occur through the complex interaction of water, climate and land use changes, and impact our lakes and reservoirs, rivers and seas. Increased surface water runoff also overwhelms our sewerage systems and wastewater treatment operations, spilling untreated effluent into our rivers.  These impacts have direct and non-linear intersections with biodiversity declines, carbon losses, food security threats, and complex human health, social and wider economic impacts. Their effects are only set to intensify in the future (UK Climate Risk Assessment, 2022).

Despite this, the natural diversity of our landscape, interconnected with river, estuary and coastal environments presents many of the opportunities to enhance our natural environment and find nature-based solutions to help us adapt to and mitigate against climate extremes. The solutions to managing water must move away from increasing ‘end of the pipeline’ investments, to solutions developed and changes made within catchment. Utilising nature based solutions where ever possible.  This would allow us to address the challenges at, or closer to, the source of the problem before impacting on the wider environment.  How we manage the water cycle at the catchment scale therefore has the potential to increase our resilience to extreme events, reverse biodiversity declines and increase our carbon storage, helping us to reach net zero more quickly. The implementation of blue/green infrastructure in urban environments also has additional health and wellbeing benefits for our communities.  Equally, water and wastewater offers opportunities for sustainable resource recovery, the development of the circular economy and energy recovery or generation.  Water has the potential therefore, to contribute to the new green economy and make a significant contribution to our transition to a net zero society.

A whole system approach

Our understanding of the water continuum has become compartmentalised or even siloed through geographical, institutional and disciplinary bias. The needs to report on status across numerous environmental directives has also resulted in data fragmented across organisations. This siloed approach is hindering our understanding of the complexity of the water system and its component parts. These issues are compounded still further by the compartmentalised jurisdictions of the stakeholders responsible for water and wastewater management. In moving forward from this status quo, we must also accept that we all, as individuals, have a responsibility and a role to play in the management of this most valuable of resources.

Inevitably, the challenges associated with water extremes provide a focus around place and provide an opportunity to drive change by bringing communities together with regulation, industry and researchers to develop and broker valued and sustainable solutions. A new paradigm of water management at the river basin scale is needed urgently to address not only these complex environmental challenges, but also promote environmental stewardship and stimulate opportunities for growth and prosperity. 

The digital revolution now provides the opportunity to drive a transformation in our understanding of water and wastewater, enable smart solutions to optimise treatment processes, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and innovate across our working practices and find in catchment solutions for water and wastewater management. Critical here is the opportunity for an open data approach to stimulate wider dialogue and partnerships in the management of the water cycle. The added benefits are immense, allowing us not only to improve health and wellbeing but also catalyse new business and innovation opportunities in resource recovery and the circular economy.  Digital technologies provide the mechanism through which we can inform and transform our relationship with the environment and through effective and responsible leadership and partnerships, we can collectively deliver on the health and wellbeing economies, tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and promote green recovery.  

Scotland’s International Environment Centre (SIEC) is a £22 million initiative, funded by the Scottish and UK Governments through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal. SIEC will lead regional and sectoral environmental research and innovation at scale, so that the protection and enhancement of our natural resources becomes an enabler of inclusive growth and supports the just transition to a net zero carbon economy. However, we need a new level of understanding of the water continuum to achieve this sustainably. The first phase of SIEC is the Forth Valley Environmental Resilience Array (Forth-ERA). This is a regional scale living laboratory with near real-time data flows to transform environmental management, stakeholder collaboration and business innovation, reduce carbon consumption and emissions, and promote sustainable technologies, products and services. Forth-ERA will harness sensor networks and satellite technologies, as well as autonomous vehicles, and couple these with modelling and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to deliver a Digital Observatory of the Firth of Forth Catchment (Fig. 1).  Forth-ERA will provide the evidence to mitigate the extreme effects of climate, provide the digital fabric to support innovation in sustainable water management across the water continuum in both the built and natural environment, while enhancing our natural capital (biodiversity and carbon sequestration).

Leading by example

Forth-ERA is a corner stone Digital Observatory supporting the development and showcase examples across the water continuum to demonstrate the benefit to cross sector water management.  Exemplars are being co-developed with key agencies (including Scottish Water, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Nature Scot, NHS Highlands).  Forth-ERA facilitates the testing of the digital approach to optimise and realise the benefit of strategic interventions that support carbon capture, reverse biodiversity declines, and develop a holistic understanding of catchment processes including the implications of unregulated emerging pollutants associated with population growth and land use intensification. Forth-ERA provides the building blocks to develop digital twins to identify and implement effective interventions and mitigation strategies. This approach will support better regulation and equitable water resources at times of increasing pressures of demand and to deliver wider societal and environmental benefits.  The approach facilitates cross sector working that is engaged with communities to find and agree workable, sustainable and valued solutions. Use cases are being developed across the water continuum and include: (i) measuring and modelling the benefit of peatland and wetland restoration in carbon capture, biodiversity, mitigating extreme water events and improving water quality; (ii) finding and optimising within catchment solutions to negate the need for ever increasing end of pipeline solutions; and (iii) the coupling of smart water networks of waste water systems with state-of-the-art and next generation sensors across the rural-urban divide to provenance source of pollution and understand event based controls on pollutant release on freshwater ecosystems.

A Platform for Growth

As a Digital Observatory Testbed, Forth-ERA is a corner stone of the Scotland Hydro Nation Chair (HNC) programme, which is driving research and innovation to support Scottish Water and the wider water sector’s strategic ambition of supporting a flourishing Scotland and going beyond net zero by 2040. The approach has attracted engagement from start-up companies and SMEs to test next generation in-situ and satellite-based sensing of water and waste waters.  SIEC is quickly becoming a hub of environment innovation excellence in the heart of Scotland with Hydro Nation Chair programme being its vanguard, stimulating opportunity and prosperity within some of Scotland’s most deprived communities and supporting the just transition to a net zero society.

Forth-ERA is now recognised as an exemplar for digital water across the UK.  Attracting additional funding from UKRI and engagement with government departments, innovation opportunities for sensor manufacturers and water management, and gaining supersite status with the DANUBIUS-RI pan-European research infrastructure on River-Sea systems.  On behalf of the UK Water Industry, the UK Water Partnership now wish to shine the spotlight on Forth-ERA as an exemplar of best practice and to bring even greater collaboration to bear from which the efficacy of digital technologies and interventions can be tested and appropriately scaled up across the UK and internationally to the benefit of all.

Back to News

Submit a story - Share your story with the water community