For years, water has been something that we’ve often taken for granted in the UK. With relatively abundant rainfall (especially if you live towards the north of the country), it’s easy to forget the infrastructure that brings the clean water to our taps.
But recently stories have helped to bring water back into the public consciousness – and none has been as dramatic as the evacuation of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. After several days of heavy rain in July 2019, part of the 300 million-gallon Toddbrook reservoir collapsed. Facing warnings of a dam failure, over 1,500 residents were advised to leave their homes for their own safety.
Saving the dam – and the town – involved pumping out 4.2 million litres of water every hour, which was a 24/7 effort from a huge team on the ground supported by a powerful RAF Chinook helicopter. Thankfully, the hard work paid off, and the reservoir held its banks. But the incident illuminated the often-hidden risks of living in a modern society – underpinned by a Victorian infrastructure.
The collapse of the dam at Malpasset in the south of France in 1959 demonstrates the devastating impact of failure to hold the waters back. The towns of Malpasset and Bozon were both flooded, with the loss of over 400 lives, when the wall was breached following heavy rainfall. Unlike the Whaley Bridge dam Maplasset had only been in service for four years before the disaster. Investigations suggested a tectonic fault as the most likely cause of the collapse but also questioned whether appropriate preconstruction studies of the region were undertaken to assess its suitability to build the dam.
A dam with a history
The dam at Whaley Bridge has a long history. The structure was built nearly 200 years ago, following the creation of the Toddbrook reservoir in 1838. Workmen took a year to complete the 24 metre high dam between 1840 and 1841, using clay with sand and gravel.
The dam was part of a wider network that supported life in the North West of England. As a feeder for the Peak Forest Canal, the reservoir enabled the transportation of goods, supporting the growth of business across the northwest, including to the nearby industrial hub Manchester.
The safety of the reservoir and the welfare of the residents wasn’t always a leading concern. Local coal mining threatened the dam’s integrity in 1880, with water even seeping into the mines’ tunnels. The owners of the structure even decided to buy the coal deposits under the dam, as a safeguard to prevent further mining.
The dam survived and the provision of water and trade was vital to the town, enabling Whaley Bridge’s population to treble from just 853 in 1841 to 2,322 towards the end of the century.
The Victorian water revolution
Whaley Bridge dam was part of the explosion of water infrastructure completed by the Victorians in the nineteenth century. Some projects were designed to make the UK waterways more navigable; Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for example, created structures from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the West Country to the Thames Tunnel under London. Meanwhile, projects like the Manchester Ship Canal in the North enabled the easier movement of goods – underpinning Britain’s enormous economic growth.
Importantly, Victorian engineers also changed how water was used in the cities. Previously, residents had relied on rivers, wells and groundwater, using privies, pits or heavily polluted rivers for sewage. In larger urban centres like London, the conditions for residents were particularly bad.
In London, a new sewerage system was commissioned in 1858, to tackle disease and the pollution of the Thames. These new water networks had a huge impact on urban life, by reducing water contamination, devastating outbreaks of cholera and typhus and infant mortality rates. The upgrading of this overworked system is currently one of the largest construction projects in London.
With their extensive building programmes, Victorians not only unlocked rapid economic growth, but created environments that could support their new urban ways of life – and enable people to live and work more healthily. Crucially, the engineers built not only for the needs of their day, but with foresight for the future, which meant that the UK could rely on the network for generations to come.
Our changing needs
So why is this long-standing Victorian infrastructure starting to creak today? One cause is population growth. Over the nineteenth century, the UK population almost trebled to 30.5 million people; in 2019 it’s 66 million. That means that the demand for clean water – and the base flow of dirty water – has outpaced expectations.
Increasing urbanisation has also led to the loss of green spaces, exacerbating the strain on the water network by reducing natural drainage spaces. As a result, we’re seeing issues that the Victorians faced re-emerging – such as the flow of sewage into rivers like the Thames which is driving the need for the Tideway Tunnel
Another issue is simply that the Victorian infrastructure is now very old and has experienced centuries of wear and tear. Whaley Bridge is just one of a series of infrastructure failures; the dam at Ulley reservoir in the North of England experienced a similar crisis in 2007.
Importantly, the original Victorian structural plans aren’t always accurate. In the case of Whaley Bridge, a twentieth-century investigation led to doubts as to whether the dam was constructed according to official records – or using more porous core materials. That makes the network extremely difficult to maintain and is one reason why issues with leakage are such a challenge for water companies. Finally, a major and growing contributor is climate change. Our weather is becoming more unpredictable, making extremes of hot weather and heavy rainfall more common. Victorian infrastructure wasn’t designed to cope with the floods and droughts we’re now facing. We need an adaptable water network, that can cope more readily with the unexpected.
Evolving towards a new age of infrastructure
Civil engineers today face the task of expanding and upgrading the water network to meet the needs of the population for years to come. That will include new projects like the London Super Sewer, to extend the network’s capacity and address issues like pollution.
Our new water networks will also need to draw on the latest engineering techniques and smart technologies. Building in digital sensors that can monitor use across the network and detect incidents like floods will ensure that communities are using water as efficiently as possible. Creating smart cities, with live data on water, will also help us to better adapt as the climate changes.
Finally, it’s vital that our water systems protect the natural environment. As well as minimising pollution and over-extraction, we will all need to play a role in reducing our water consumption and waste to create a sustainable network as resources become more scarce.
The incident at Whaley Bridge is a reminder of how much we rely on the water network – and how much we owe to the Victorian pioneers that helped to create it. Now, it’s time for us to imitate our predecessors and modernise our water network once again. And with the right approach, hopefully, we can create a lasting infrastructure that will serve generations to come.
Read more about the London Super Sewer upgrading the capital’s Victorian water system.