Published: 7 Dec 2021

Water companies need to take a balanced approach to managing long-term urban infrastructure in a sustainable way, says the International Water Association’s Rita Brito.  

The International Water Association (IWA) is an international network of water professionals. It provides a forum for the global industry to exchange experiences, learn from each other and promote high-quality water-related practices that encourage sustainability.  

I chair the IWA’s Strategic Asset Management Specialist Group and a key part of our current three-year programme is to implement the ISO 55000 asset management standard in the urban water sector.  

As people working in the quality management community know, international standards offer a consistent and transparent framework, developed through the consensus of experts and maximising global best practice and lessons learned.  

Getting the balance right 

The ISO 55000:2014 standard helps organisations gain more value from their assets, while balancing the costs, risks, opportunities and performance benefits.  

To get this balance right, it is essential for utilities organisations to adopt an assessment system that evaluates and monitors performance, encourages continuous improvement and supports strategic decision-making.  

Our group’s focus is to guide utilities organisations, including the asset and quality management professionals who work within them, to manage long-term urban infrastructure in a sustainable way.  

Every time an asset needs replacing, it offers the chance of a rethink.

These organisations need to identify their mission and vision, and then identify the objectives that support the whole assessment system. They must assess if each decision contributes to meeting the overall objectives, without compromising future sustainability.  

In urban water systems, individual components do not provide a service in isolation; their role in the overall behaviour of the system should always be considered. For example, when an overflow occurs upstream, it may have been caused by insufficient capacity downstream because of tidal influence. 

Dealing with international water resources adds further complexity. This is because the needs and expectations of different stakeholders must be taken into account when planning how such resources will be used, today and in the future.  

A long-term vision 

Most individual assets within a water system are designed to last several decades, but they do have a natural lifecycle. In contrast to this, the water system, as a whole, has an indefinite life – it was there when we started working on it and it will still be there after we retire. That’s why it is so essential to have a long-term vision. 

When deciding what to replace, and when and where to replace it, we have to ensure we keep continuity of service. People carry on drinking and using water, and creating wastewater, every day, so the system needs to carry on working, too. 

Rethinking systems 

Every time an asset needs replacing, it offers the chance of a rethink. When this happens, asset and quality management professionals should ask some fundamental questions about that asset, such as the following.  

  • What is its value to the service you provide?  
  • What is its value today and what will it be tomorrow?  
  • Is there an alternative, instead of a like-for-like replacement? 
  • Is it possible to choose a more sustainable option, promoting closed-loop systems, and minimising the use of resources and the production of waste, pollution and carbon emissions? 
  • Should the focus be on more flexibility, to accommodate uncertainties in future demands or challenges? (Examples of this might include changing demographics, climate change, emerging contaminants or security issues.) 
     

Rethinking existing systems and combining long-lasting assets with modern technology is the only way to ensure we will build sustainable and resilient water services for the future.