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Heriot-Watt University (HWU) in Edinburgh, Scotland is globally recognised as the leading expert in drainage solutions. We asked Dr Michael Gormley, Associate Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Building Design, for his perspective on the challenges the world faces on World Water Day.

This year’s World Water Day sadly coincides with the biggest public health challenge of the new millennium: the coronavirus health pandemic.

Global warming is the ‘official’ theme of the event and, rightly so, given that climate policy makers must put water increasingly at the heart of their action plans. As a result of climate change, for instance, it is estimated that some 1.8 billion people will live in countries by mid-decade with absolute water scarcity.

As we get to grips with these twin, grand challenges, World Water Day reminds us of the urgent need for collaboration among many different actors, and the need for a pipeline of future talent to tackle the complex issues the world is now facing.

There is an urgent need for collaboration between the public and private sector, academia, industry, regulators and communities.

In many respects, industry can lead universities in understanding the key challenges facing society as we struggle to grow economies in sustainable ways. There is a need to build stronger and deeper relationships with industry, so that academic courses and applied research are even more relevant and deal with current problems and opportunities, not those of 10 years ago.

But perhaps most of all, we need to attract young people to engineering; if you are motivated to solve these global issues, then come and talk to us. We need to reach out to students in schools so they can see the potential of what being an engineer in the 21st century can achieve.

For example, we are seeking to harness ‘big data’ for modelling future improved building services. Here at Heriot-Watt University, we have gathered large data sets on water and wastewater services over the past 30 to 40 years. We are currently interrogating these data sets (and newly generated data) using data science techniques such as machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. We believe that this will lead to new understanding of system performance and help inform new codes and standards for the future.

As cities get larger across much of the world, and buildings often larger and taller, there is increasing strain on systems to protect public health and optimise resource management, including water supply. This is a critical issue for health and disease prevention.

We can tackle these challenges if we renew our endeavour, every day to learn, discover and collaborate. We need young people with a thirst to make a difference for tomorrow on this World Water Day.

Michael Gormley, Associate Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Building Design at Heriot Watt University