Dr. Kat Austen

How do we make UK water provision more resilient?

  • Blog
  • water resilience, Ofwat, governance, interdisciplinarity, perspectives, community, water, Open Droplet, policy

Open call for consultation from UK water regulator Ofwat as part of Kat’s work with the resilience working group

Flickr @benurs - https://www.flickr.com/photos/benurs (CC BY-SA 2.0) Flickr @benurs - https://www.flickr.com/photos/benurs (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As cultures we constantly evolve in our approach to different issues. In terms of human existence within our environment, we have transitioned from living embedded in and at the mercy of it, through processes of industrialisation, to environmentalism, and sustainability - and now we have now reached a concept of resilience that is prominent even at a policy level.

The OFWAT Water Resilience Task and Finish Group

In the UK this takes shape at government level in the form of directives that aim to improve resilience accross the country and in different sectors. This includes, among others, sector resilience plans, emergency planning and risk assessment, engagement with society, and - in terms of water - the Water Act 2014, which includes a duty for the UK water regulator to secure resilience in the water sector.

To understand how to fulfil this duty, the UK water regulator, Ofwat, convened at the start of 2015 the Water Resilience Task and Finish Group, chaired by Jacob Tompkins, MD of Waterwise. Jacob approached me to participate as a member of the group, alongside colleagues from within the water industry, academia and environmental organisations.

I am thrilled and humbled to be helping provide recommendations that may shape the UK’s approach to water resilience. With the group, I am working on two areas: a broad look at what water resilience looks like from a multitude of perspectives, which Jun and I are now turning into a map of water resilience with the aim of producing a systems map that can be used by policy makers and stakeholders alike to understand leverage points in which they could have agency to bring about a more resilient approach to water; and a body of research on community based water resilience strategies.

Working towards a clear definition of Resilience

Defining resilience is almost a specialisation in itself, and no definition will please all the people all the time. But part of the workgroup’s aim is to come up with a workable definition that focusses on water resilience in the UK. Our work has already had an impact in shaping Ofwat’s definition of resilience in their resilience consultation, which is taking place alongside our independent work.

The definition so far is:

Resilience is the ability to cope with, and recover from, disruption, trends and variability in order to maintain services for people and protect the natural environment, now and in the future.

Being part of the working group is a valuable two way learning experience. With a perspective from outside the water sector, it’s been interesting for me to learn more about the national-scale processes in play. It’s also been interesting to see how community and citizens are perceived differently by different stakeholders in the discussion - for water companies the agency of a customer is predominantly through their ability or willingness to pay, whereas from my perspective - something that chimes with our work at iilab and Open Droplet - these customers are citizens with agency that can be acted in multiple ways either individually or as part of a community. This may take the form of engaging with their political representatives, their water company, as a community member working with organisations to prevent flooding or improve river water quality, or by taking steps to decentralise or create multiple modes for their water supply.

Unpacking perspectives on Resilience

Another interesting difference was how each of us perceived the “final point” at which water resilience is felt. It became clear through our discussions that for most of the members from the water sector, water resilience came from the continued functioning of the current water sector infrastructure, facilitated by the extant water companies. For me, however, water resilience comes down to people having access to appropriately clean water and waste water treatment, however that comes about, and resilience of ecological systems (including human nodes) to water changes such as flooding, changing salination, and so on. I’ve endeavoured to bring these different viewpoints to the working group meetings and to my work mapping and researching for the final report.

Here comes the fun bit, though. The approach of the working group is participative. At iilab, we will be sharing both the water map and the research when it’s in a more complete state. To help inform both the mapping, the research, and the recommendations for Ofwat, the group has generated a survey for interested parties who might have knowledge or ideas to share with respect to working towards water resilience.

How to contribute

What do you think about water resilience? I’d like to share the survey with you - here’s the agreed wording for doing that:

“The UK Water Resilience Task Force would like your views, please complete this short survey, ideally by mid-August”

Contribute to the work by completing the survey, hosted by Cranfield University.

I’m informed that the data policy for the survey is that the anonymised data will be made open source unless individuals make a compelling request to be excluded from that.

And if you’re interested to, you can follow or join the UK Water Resilience LinkedIn Group. You can also email at and join in on Twitter using #resilience.