Engineers must work harder to create sustainable development to avoid having to choose between short-term human needs and the environment when water is scarce, delegates decided at a debate in central London this week.

The debate, hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, rejected the motion that “when water is in short supply, engineers should prioritise human needs over environmental concerns”. The debate was part of a series run by the Academy on natural resources in the global economy.

Speaking against the motion, Trevor Bishop, Head of Water Resources for the Environment Agency, said that past responses to water shortages had relied on the “implicit resilience” of water supplies – that periods of drought would be short and infrequent and that any environmental damage would be quickly recovered. With climate change and big increases in demand for water, however, that approach was no longer feasible: the water crises were likely to be more frequent and that demanded new thinking.

He said: “If we just abandon the environment we will be operating in an unplanned way.” Water supply policies needed to be “adaptive” to reflect the realities and to be sustainable “not just for ourselves but for future generations”, he said.

But Chris Binnie FREng, water consultant and a former president of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, said, in proposing the motion, that human needs should always take priority and that there was still much that could be done to conserve and manage water supplies to meet the basic human right to clean water. Prioritising environmental concerns could mean shortage of water for people, widespread death from thirst or starvation and mass migration to temperate climates by many of those who survived.

 “This doesn’t mean ignoring the environment - mitigating the environmental impact is important. The environment generally recovers from the effects of a short term water scarcity during a drought,” he said. But water efficiency initiatives such as “more crop per drop” and making people more aware of the “water footprint” in everyday items could help overcome short-term difficulties.

The debate on water was attended by more than 100 engineers and other interested professionals and focused on the balance between short-term measures needed to tackle local supply problems and longer-term sustainability issues. Speakers on both sides of the debate pointed to the difference between “water needs” and “water wants”: consumption of water per head in affluent societies such as the UK is many times the actual amount needed to sustain human life.

But with world population having passed the seven billion mark and forecast to be nine billion before 2050, the availability of water is now a global concern with political, economic and social implications. Dr Jean Venables CBE FREng, chairperson of the Association of Drainage Authorities and a past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said that water had been consistently undervalued, and that environmental benefits as a whole “are not taken sufficiently into account”.

Opposing the motion, she said: “If we don’t look after the environment, we will reach a point where we can’t look after human needs at all.” She urged a new emphasis in water management on managing the water cycle in individual catchment areas: “At present we are channelling too much of our water resources down the sewers,” she said. “We are not using the water resources we have available to us.”

Dr Sue Cavill, associate at Engineers Against Poverty, said that water supply shortages were a current reality for up to a billion people in the world, many of them in drought-hit sub-Saharan Africa. “Engineers have an ethical role to enhance the welfare of all,” she said.

In a wide-ranging debate with many contributions from the floor, speakers agreed that it was important that engineers were heavily involved in debates about water security on a global scale. “There are lots of people who should play a role in making decisions and engineers need to be bringing their talents to the table,” Jean Venables said.

The motion was defeated by a majority of two to one.

Audio recording of the debate opening statements available:

Notes for editors

  1. The water debate was the third in a series on Natural Resources in a Global Economy run by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s International team and chaired by the Academy’s International Secretary, Professor Sir William Wakeham FREng. Other debates in the series have tackled issues in energy supply and the availability of scarce mineral resources.

    A previous series of debates organised by the Academy covered engineering and business issues involved in competing in the global economy. A report summarising the arguments and themes from this first series of debates is available from the Academy.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636
Email: Jane Sutton