CIWEM – Turning over a new leaf

February 2021

How environmental professionals are sowing the seed for a sustainable future

In 2019, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) declared a climate and ecological emergency, accelerating the mobilisation of environmental professionals to develop and implement much needed solutions for a brighter, greener future.

The following year, we had the pleasure of working with Terry Fuller (CIWEM’s Chief Executive) and his hugely passionate and dedicated team to produce a programme called ‘Adapting for Tomorrow’s Environment’. As a geography graduate with a keen interest in environmental issues, I couldn’t wait to get started!

My continued education on environmental issues and solutions got started straight away in a highly productive and eye-opening editorial meeting with the CIWEM team. We were introduced to SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems), the water-food-energy nexus, and discussed the sobering news of scientists’ warnings that the world may already have crossed a series of climate tipping points. 

Given that CIWEM is an organisation dedicated to the sustainable management of the environment, a number of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are closely aligned with its focuses and the work of its members; including:

  • SDG6 – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • SDG11 – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • SDG12 – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • SDG13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  • SDG14 – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • SDG15 – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

So there was much to explore… 

We spoke with professionals across academia, industry, government and the third sector in our research for the programme, gaining insight into the broad spectrum of inspirational work contributing to environmental sustainability.

So.. what are the key issues facing environmental professionals?

There is little doubt that climate change, and its consequences, are our biggest threat, and pose the grandest of challenges to environmental professionals. Some of the repercussions of climate change are easily seen and directly affect many people on a day-to-day basis; such as more extreme weather events or ‘climate shocks’ – storms, flooding, rising sea-levels, coastal erosion, heatwaves, drought. Others are less easily seen, but just as devastating for life on earth; warming oceans, melting glaciers,biodiversity loss. Looking ahead, the IPCC has showed the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming, and unless we take action now, the world is likely to exceed 2°C of warming, possibly even reaching 5°C or more by the end of the century. The effects we see now are just the beginning.

In the UK, the most widely experienced impact of global warming is flooding; 5.2 million properties in England are at risk from flooding, and the Environment Agency projects that if planning outcomes continue, this number could double.

Last year, Storm Dennis brought the UK’s worst flooding in 200 years; there were at least five fatalities, hundreds of residents were evacuated from their homes, power cuts, widespread disruption on road, rail and ferry links, sporting events cancelled. The storm left £15 billion of damage in its wake. 

Human factors contribute to the severity of flooding on the ground. For example – urbanisation and development in flood prone areas impacts their natural resiliency and impermeable surfaces affect surface-runoff patterns. 

And what are the solutions?

The good news is that much is being done to take action on climate change, not only in mitigation (carbon neutrality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions), but also across resilience and adaptation (“taking action to prepare for and adjust to both the current effects of climate change and the predicted impacts in the future” – European Commission).

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report conveyed the urgency required in mitigation to limit future climate change. The UK has committed to become net zero by 2050, and sustainability is climbing to the top of the agenda for many companies. In March this year, it was announced that a third of the UK’s biggest companies have committed to net zero – signing up to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign.

But in the meantime, adaptation is critical in order for us to live with the consequences already being felt, and those to come. 

With flooding being a key focus of the programme, we connected with many experts who are dedicated to developing and implementing solutions to improve outcomes for the benefit of the public. 

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency (EA), spoke to us about the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy (published in 2019) and its changing focus from protection and defence to adaptation and resilience, setting out a vision for a nation resilient to flooding and coastal change to the year 2100. The EA takes a strategic overview of the management of all sources of flooding and coastal erosion.

Meanwhile in England, Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) were set up under the Flood & Water Management Act 2010, and are responsible for coordinating flood risk management in their areas. We spoke with Bristol City Council (the LLFA for Bristol) – the first local authority to declare a climate emergency for their city. Some of the adaptation measures the council is putting in place include landscaping for better flood control and river restoration to open up the river where it flows underground. Not only will this help to prevent damage caused by flooding, but it will also create a healthier environment and improve biodiversity.

Civil engineering companies are at the forefront of innovation in flood risk management, designing and constructing infrastructure and drainage networks to prevent flooding. 

Jacobs helps cities and towns adapt to the challenges of climate change. In Salford, Jacobs led the design of a new wetland with re-meandering of the river to store flood water; and harder defenses against the River Mersey have been sympathetically designed for Warrington.

VolkerStevin demonstrated the work being done as part of the Southsea Coastal Defence Scheme to protect 10,000 homes and 700 businesses. This includes a range of defenses – from hard seawalls to rock armour and beach nourishment.

In another chapter of the programme, we visited the work of The Rivers Trust – a charity working to protect, promote and enhance our river environment. Chief Executive Mark Lloyd introduced nature-based solutions as a great way of tackling the issues of nature depletion and climate change. For example – planting trees in strategic places, restoring habitats alongside rivers, and restoring healthy soil on agricultural land – all these things help to slow the flow of water and reduce flooding.

It was encouraging to see such a vast amount of multi-disciplinary expertise and a range of skills sets coming together to address our pressing environmental challenges, the efforts above are the tip of the iceberg!

View the full programme and find out more about the initiatives mentioned, and others in flooding and beyond to avert the ecological and climate crisis:

By Millie Gallagher, Senior Programme Manager, CWP

Content With Purpose