Interview: Dr Toby Willison on the environmental challenge facing the water indsutry

Laura Cross

The water industry’s 2030 Net Zero target is an ambitious goal and reaching it will require a major change to the way the industry operates. Becoming energy efficient, exploring the potential of nature-based solutions and adopting a circular economy are an important step towards a greener future for the industry. Future of Utilities caught up with Dr Toby Willison, Chief Environment & Sustainability Officer at Southern Water, to dig a little deeper into the opportunities and challenges on the road to Net Zero.


(Laura Cross) What are the challenges facing the water industry when it comes to sustainability?

(Toby Willison) I think that the water industry has more sustainability challenges than the majority of other industries because it is so integrated with the environment. Everything that a water company does is about the environment.

Taking water from the environment or putting material back in, we’re using chemicals, we’re using plastics, we’re using energy. In every part of our processes, production systems and treatment facilities, we need to consider the impacts in a cradle to grave type of approach.

Carbon is a real challenge because we are such an energy hungry business. Chemicals are too because we’re spread all the way across the country, our processes are already highly dependent on them, and the regulator is expecting us to further tighten the quality of the material we are putting back into the environment and that requires more chemicals.

Whether it’s energy, chemicals, or plastics we face tough challenges. But I think as an industry we’re up for it.


(LC) From nature-based solutions to the circular economy, what solutions hold the most potential to enhance environmental protection and decarbonise?

(TW) I think when we look back on this period in 20 years-time we will say that we were at a crossroads.

A crossroads between moving from a concrete, pipe-based network asset organisation, to an industry that is much more about the integrated management of catchments, the landscape and the water environment – where nature-based solutions sit alongside the concrete asset infrastructure that’s traditionally been the hallmark of the industry.

That brings real opportunity.

Whether it’s about the recycling of water, biosolids and how they’re used on land, building resilience into our networks and protecting our environments, the benefits to communities and the amenity value of nature-based solutions, to helping with our biodiversity crisis. These are all spaces where that dual combination of nature-based and traditional solutions can really benefit communities, the economy and the environment. I’m really excited, we’re at this crossroads.


(LC) How could greater collaboration between water companies and external players be facilitated?

(TW) That is the million-dollar question isn’t it. There’s no doubt in my mind that the solutions to the really knotty challenges that the industry and society face – whether that’s about growth in population, protecting really important and sensitive habitats, or dealing with the challenges of CSO – do not lie in the hands of an individual operator or entity.

The solution to CSO spilling, yes some of that’s about water companies, but a lot of it is about how we manage highways, how we’re managing our land, what houses we’re building, where we’re building them, and the conditions we’re putting on that planning. You have to find mechanisms that enable the partnerships that underpin that cross-sectorial working to operate. That best happens through local planning, local collaboration, and local decision making. Facilitated and recognised by national regulators.

It’s in getting that balance right that I think you will enable the sort of outcomes that local communities, businesses, and environments need in the context of what is a nationally regulated sector.


(LC) There’s a number of ambitious environmental goals, can the industry keep pace with the targets?

(TW) Yes, absolutely!

The industry is hugely privileged in the sense that we’re effectively a regional monopoly, but it’s hugely challenged as well because we touch on virtually every household and business in the country. We’re absolutely up for the challenge and recognising the importance of our role in both society and as a custodian of the environment. What we all want is to leave the environment in a better state than we find it.


(LC) Is the 2030 Net-Zero target achievable?

(TW) I think the question is not is it achievable, it’s “can we afford not to achieve it?”. If industries like ours are not striving to achieve a goal like that then ultimately, we will be paying the price. The changing climate will make running our business increasingly difficult. There’ll be less water, there’ll be more flooding, there’ll be more periods of drought.

There’s almost an enlightened self-interest that we should be moving heaven and earth to reduce our carbon emissions, along with, frankly, every other business and every other individual across the globe. The price is too high for us not to be doing that.

Catch Toby’s keynote, “Tackling an ambitious Net Zero goal: exploring the green solutions to meet the industry’s biggest challenge”, at Future of Utilities: Water on March 21-22 in London.