Connecting climate change, sustainability & water use: Interview with Ian barker

NextGen spoke to a number of thought leaders and innovators at Water Innovation Europe 2019 about the circular economy and intricacies of the water-energy nexus.


One of the keynote speakers was Ian Barker, Managing Director Water Policy International Ltd; Visiting Professor Exeter University; Vice-President Environment at Institute of Water; and Expert Advisor to OECD. We caught him for a quick interview. Here’s what he had to say…  

NextGen: When we talk about water and energy what do you think are the big challenges for the sector?

Professor Ian Barker: I think water and energy face a huge number of challenges, but probably the biggest one facing them both is climate change. Climate change means that we need to move towards clean energy sources and many of those will rely upon a secure supply of water. Climate change will affect the availability of water resources and water supplies, and it will also mean that both are less resilient to shocks.


With environmental sustainability so absolutely fundamental to our future, we need to prioritise managing resources in a sustainable way. We need to think about their impact on the ecosystems that we rely upon, to keep us healthy and supplied with food and clean air; and also in terms of their intrinsic worth in terms of species variability.


For example, people imagine that hydropower is a relatively clean, green source of energy — and it is in many ways — but it can have huge environmental impacts. Freshwater species have declined by 83% since 1970, and much of that is due to the way in which we pump water out of rivers, or use hydropower plants. Meeting the sustainability and climate change challenges will make us view things in a different way and operate in a different way.

How do you think the water in the circular economy can come together and the place of water in the water-energy nexus?

In terms of the circular economy, I think the first thing we need to do is to get into a different mindset. Water is a perfect example of circular economy. There is the natural cycle in terms of evaporation, rainfall and reuse again. But in terms of water supply that we all rely upon, water is brought to our houses or our places of work, taken away again, cleaned up, and then put back into the rivers. At each point in that cycle, there is a different element of the value chain that we can exploit better than we do already.


In particular, recognising that so-called wastewater is actually a resource, and a resource that can be used many times over. In the U.K., for example, what used to be called ‘sewage or waste water treatment works’ are now being rebadged quite properly as ‘water recycling works’, because they’re taking dirt out of clean water, they’re taking the residue you get from cleaning up sewage, and using that sludge to generate clean electricity. So it’s a perfect example of the circular economy in action.

And with regard to these challenges, is there a policy or technology measure that has caught your eye lately or you think would be particularly promising for the future?

I think the thing that we need most desperately, and there are some positive green-shoots coming, is a shift in policy thinking and governance and regulation. Many people are very alert to the fact that you need to join up water and energy, and think about them in an integrated way. Sadly, in most countries, legislation and policy are very much in siloes. It’s water, or it’s energy.


What we are now starting to see amongst more enlightened law and policy makers is integrating managing water and energy; but also the environment, as part of a trio. Energy and water rely upon the environment, and the environment relies upon the way in which we deliver water and energy services. Key to all of that is the way in which people view those services. It’s people that use energy; people who use water; and, at the moment, I think most of them are not aware of the impact they’re having upon the natural world.

Prof. Barker, thank you for your insights and time