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Meeting the future demand for water

Demand Strategist Paul Merchant explains how we make sure we can provide enough water from our reservoirs, rivers and boreholes to meet demand now and in the future

Paul Merchant
Leaving university with a physics degree in my back pocket, I never considered that I'd end up working in the water industry, but after 13 years at South West Water, I'm really pleased that I did. I work in the Supply Demand Strategy Team, whose role is to make sure that we can provide enough water from our network of reservoirs, river intakes and boreholes to meet demand both now and in the future.

People are usually pretty interested when I mention that I work in water resources, picturing excitingly large dams and big pipes. That interest soon evaporates though when I tell them that I analyse customer demand and forecast future usage.

While it's true that it's pretty geeky work, it's also really important in making sure that South West Water can meet the future demand for water. Things like population growth, housing development and economic activity are an essential part of understanding how the demand for water is likely to change, but they don't tell the whole story. Equally important is how much water each customer uses, and increased metering and water efficiency have seen that drop over the last couple of decades.

We need to make sure that we can meet customer demand through challenges like drought, population growth and climate change. But it's not just us down in the South West who are having to deal with these challenges, they're issues that are faced all over the UK, so it makes sense for water companies around the country to work together to find solutions.

That's where UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) comes in. UKWIR commissions research projects on topics that are of interest to the whole industry, so it's a great way for us at South West Water to get access to cutting-edge research and innovation that we just wouldn't be able to afford on our own.

As well as my day-job at South West Water I'm lucky enough to be UKWIR's Programme Lead for water resources research. That means that I help to put together the research programme and ensure that the projects meet their objectives. It's a fascinating role which involves liaising with other water companies and industry regulators to understand their issues and requirements, and developing projects to help resolve them.

On a personal level it's a fantastic development opportunity as I get involved in the latest research and help to shape the future of the industry. It's great for South West Water too, as I'm able to bring that knowledge and innovation back into the business, ultimately making it a more efficient organisation which is good for our customers.

One question that people always ask when they find out what I do is "Do you need to build any more reservoirs then?" The good news is that, at least for the next 25 years, the answer is no. We're expecting the fall in average customer consumption and reductions in leakage to counter population growth, meaning that our current resources will meet the region's needs for many years to come.

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