Big question

BQ3 - How do we achieve zero interruptions to water supplies by 2050?



We are currently working on the approach to answering this Big Question, and more information will be given here soon.

The areas that this Big Question covers includes:

  • Evaluate if we are contributing harmful plastics to the water cycle
  • Establish their source and effective control measures to remove them

Once we understand where the gaps are, we will produce a route map – this is a plan as to how we will answer our Big Question.

The route map will have a number of key elements. At the top will be our Big Question and then we will look to see what Outcomes we need from the research programme -if we can achieve all these outcomes we can answer the Big Question. This is the stage we are currently at for this Big Question.

The next stage will be to think about the key benefits we want the research projects to deliver to meet these outcomes.

Following this, we will plan the research projects to help deliver the benefits.

UKWIR – the UK and Irish water industry’s research body – has commissioned the first study of its kind in the UK to develop a robust approach to sampling and detection of microplastic particles in the treated water cycle. This included accurately measuring the presence of microplastic particles in potable (drinking) water, treated wastewater and in the solid residues (sludge) produced by both the water and wastewater treatment processes. Please click here to view more information.


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Enhancing equality, diversity and inclusion in the UK Water Industry.

Project Status - Project Completed

Category - Programme Management

Lack of diversity in the UK & Irish water industry workforce means that we are missing out on the talent from multiple groups who are under-represented. UK & Irish water industry workforce currently does not reflect the wider society that we serve. As companies who serve the communities around is it is vital that we have representation from within of all the various groups that we serve. This will enable us to understand the challenges and issues that our customers face, as well as reasons why they might not be receptive to our messaging (e.g. reducing water use)

OFWAT expect all of the UK Water companies to be delviering on this; a quote taken from the OFWAT 'Time to Act Together' strategy says "We want to see water companies transform their ability to serve customers and respond to the full diversity of customer needs, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances." We can only do this if we have an embedded understanding of what those customers' needs are, and the best way to achieve that is through having a diverse workforce with a wide variety of lived experiences.

Limited diversity in thought means that we are missing out on innovation opportunities. There is plenty of research available that proves that a diverse workforce brings many business benefits, and is in the interests of all. Statistics gathered by McKinsey confirm that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability, and companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. Companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability. Further details can be found in the 2018 McKinsey report "Delivery through Diversity" which is available free of charge.

One of the pillars of the UK Water 2050 Strategy is 'Enabling Diverse Future-Ready People and Partnership Working' explained as "We need to ensure we have the culture, skills and partnerships to innovate to prepare for future change."

One of the specific short-term goals towards 2025 is "Training, upskilling, resource sharing, and employment development programmes support the creation of a diverse, representative and future ready workforce, which reflects are open to innovation and able to adapt to future challenges.

For example:
• through development programmes to ensure that diversity of thought, innovation skills and wider supporting skills, such as collaboration, digital, product develop and customer research, are key water sector skill-sets

The sector has a shared understanding of where future skills gaps could emerge and sector wide plans and training programmes to address any gaps identified"


PFAS and wastewater - prevalence, reduction options and costs.

Project Status - Project Completed

The release of the film 'Dark Waters' has only served to highlight a wider concern than the known issue of widespread non-compliance with the EQS for PFOS. There is emerging concern regarding the wider family of PFAS and their toxicity both to humans and in the environment. The EA is currently taking a pragmatic view and effectively relaxing the EQS for PFOS in the light of monitoring data (aqueous and biota) but this leaves unanswered issues of what to regulate and why - and then how the industry should respond, and if compliance is cost-effective.


Scoping Study - Understanding Asset Risk (BQ8).

Project Status - Project Completed


BQ03-A01-Trunk Mains Preventative Maintenance to Reduce Major Incident Risk.

Project Status - Project Completed


BQ03-B04 Optimising and balancing short-term operational interventions with long-term capital maintenance to improve water supply interruptions.

Project Status - Project Commenced

Category - Water Mains & Services & Leakage

Freeze—thaw and the dry weather events in FY2022-23 have increased focus on investments made by the water industry in striving to reduce the risk of water supply interruptions and our ability to respond and recover. Minimising customer water supply interruptions is a priority, now. There is however a balance to be struck between short-term operational investment (including patch repairs, event management and alternative supply vehicles) alongside longer-term capital maintenance (including trunk main maintenance and renewal). There is great diversity across the sector in prioritisation and investment to achieve water supply interruption resilience and recovery. The sensitivity of performance to weather and other external factors shows there is still more to do for the sector.

We have a statutory planning framework for water sufficiency in Water Resources Management Plans as well as long-term planning requirements for Water Quality (submission of Long Term Water Quality Plans to DWI), but there is no consistent planning framework for optimising resilience to short-term water supply interruptions (WSI) and events.

The recent UKWIR BQ03-CO8 root-cause project confirmed that mains bursts are the primary contributor to WSI across the sector. Whilst there are multiple root causes for mains bursts, asset health deterioration is likely to be a significant contributor.

Water companies have invested heavily to improve response and recovery following mains bursts (and similar) whilst also investing in the renewal and replacement of water mains at a sustainable and affordable rate. The fundamental question that needs to be addressed is when are the benefits of short-term operational investments overtaken by the negative performance impact of asset health deterioration? This is particular pertinent for companies who utilise a network of larger diameter trunk mains which are traditionally far more challenging to maintain and renew than DMA level water mains and result in large scale WSIs in the event of a burst. Continued investment in response and recovery activities are crucial, but acceleration and increasing scales of capital maintenance investment beyond existing regulatory Botex cost model allocations will be required to meet future “demand” – but when? 

*in line with Ofwat’s expectations for annual renewal rates within existing Botex allocations



BQ03- C08- Identifying the root causes of failures that lead to interruptions.

Project Status - Project Completed

Category - Water Mains & Services & Leakage

In order to effectively prioritise BQ3 Route Map research activities we need a clear understanding of the major root causes of failure leading to interruptions to supply (ITS) across the industry.  There is a need to assess if there are pipeline characteristics, environmental location and conditions, or third-party impacts that are main or high contributors to ITS events across the industry.  There is also currently a lack of consistent methods across the industry regarding root cause failure analysis (RCFA). Lack of awareness of this can trigger premature or incorrect capital investment where very expensive mains replacement may occur prior to all operational or maintenance mitigation being exhausted.

At present, there is no readily available national data on the relative property minutes contributions of ITS events on large diameter mains as opposed to smaller diameter mains or between material types. This relatively basic asset information alone could significantly inform or reaffirm industry and BQ3 route map research priorities moving forwards in terms of relative focus on trunk mains or distribution mains and certain material types etc.

By gathering and interpreting ITS root cause data and information across the industry, the BQ3 research programme can then be further prioritised to focus on those assets that have the greater risk of causing ITS events.  This project will also provide an agreed industry data protocol for future data collection in this area and enhance the effective specification of appropriate datasets for the development of the new National Failures Database (NFD), running as a parallel project. 

By focussing BQ3 research projects on those assets that are more likely to cause ITS events, we will ultimately reduce those events and move towards “Achieving zero interruptions to supply by 2050”.  This will not only provide a better service to our customers but encourage more efficient ways of working within water companies in this area, improve practice and ODI impact and, ultimately, reduce major incident risk. 



Understanding water infrastructure risks - major bursts, traffic volumes and the condition of road infrastructure..

Project Status - Project Commenced

Category - Water Mains & Services & Leakage

A number of companies experienced a rise in the rate of bursts on larger diameter mains in 2022, a number of these occurred at or close to sizeable road junctions. There is a hypothesis that the

condition of the road and the volume of traffic at these road junctions and has contributed to failure of these mains. When a vehicle hits a pothole, and a shock is felt within the vehicle, however that shock wave will travel down through the road towards the water mains, but does this increase the risk of failure and how can that risk then be monitored to allow risk mitigation measures to be taken.

Over the years we have had a number of major bursts at large road junctions. There are many reasons why we have burst, transients being a common factor, but does significant vibration/shock due to vehicles also result in premature/catastrophic failure or significant risk to major water distribution infrastructure. Should we consider the volume of traffic and the condition of road surfaces as significant risk to major water distribution infrastructure and how would we mange that risk.


BQ03-D01-Accelerating Innovation and Development of Effective Early Warning and Event Management tools.

Project Status - Project Completed


BQ03- E02 - Customer communication and managing customer use during supply interruption events.

Project Status - Project Completed

Category - Asset Management