Holistic risk management


Approaches to safeguarding drinking water and waste water utilities, and how a web-based risk management tool has been successfully trialled

Water supply and sanitation are critical services and contribute to a safe, healthy environment and society. Many different kinds of hazards and hazardous events may adversely affect water supply and sewage operations and ultimately have an impact on our customers.

Thus, water utilities are aware of the possibility of those hazards and hazardous events occurring and they are prepared to manage the related risks accordingly.

Risks may be caused by events which the water utility cannot control, things like extreme weather conditions and vandalism, or by the utility’s own operations, e.g. lack of maintenance or human error. These threats should be systematically identified and the risks related to them assessed and treated accordingly. Depending on the cause, probability and severity, the risk can be mitigated by removing or reducing it, or accepted if the required risk management actions are unrealistic.

Nonetheless, it is vital that water utilities are prepared for what to do in the case of an emergency situation, taking contingencies and alternatives into account so as to assure continued water services for their consumers.


Legal framework in Finland

In accordance with the Finnish Drinking Water Decree, the operational monitoring of drinking water supply should be based on risk assessment. The Drinking Water Decree also obliges health protection authorities to prepare plans to safeguard drinking water quality in Finland.

These plans must be made in cooperation with water suppliers and they must be based on risk assessment. The amended annex II of the European Drinking Water Directive allows for risk assessment-based monitoring of drinking water quality on specified terms.

In the implementation of annex II of the EU legislation, the Finnish national Health Protection Act was amended to allow for obligatory risk assessment-based drinking water quality monitoring beginning from November 2017.

The Finnish national Water Services Act, in turn, compels water utilities to be aware of the risks related to the quantity and quality of their raw water and the risks related to their plant facilities.

Water suppliers and health protection authorities are mandated to fulfil all these risk-assessment requirements through one, collaborative drinking water quality related risk assessment for each water supplier.

The Environmental Protection Act stipulates that all waste water treatment plants exceeding a population equivalent of 100 must have an environmental permit. As permit holders, waste water treatment plants must have a plan of what to do in the case of an emergency, which is based on a risk assessment.

This plan must cover actions to prevent accidents and to limit the negative consequences of these to health and the environment.

The creation of a national Water Cycle Safety Plan (WCSP) was included in the 2011 government programme of Finland to assure safe drinking water in all eventualities.

A Water Safety Plan (WSP), a Building Water Safety Plan and a Sanitation Safety Plan (SSP) were developed in Finland under the leadership of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health to achieve the goals of the WCSP. Figure 1 illustrates the framework of these plans and their connections to land use planning, the protection of water sources and water supply in communities and buildings, as well as the cycle of waste water treatment and natural resources.



National web-based tools for the Water Safety Plan and Sanitation Safety Plan

The national web-based tools for water and sanitation safety planning were developed in cooperation with water utilities, health and environmental protection authorities and other stakeholders between 2012-14.

The tools were launched for public use by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in 2015. The tools can be used free of charge by water utilities and authorities. The WSP and SSP applications follow the general principles of risk management. WSP principles introduced by the World Health Organization are implemented in the WSP tool and it covers the management of drinking water quality related risks in the drinking water supply chain from catchment to point of delivery.

The SSP tool manages the health and environmental risks of the sewage system and waste water treatment. The SSP also covers the entire sewage system from the user’s connection point to the effluent discharge and all the process points in between.

Side processes and support functions such as automation, working methods, communications, professional skills and data security are included in the scheme. The overall approach of the SSPs is holistic, which differs from the methods used in SSPs in some other countries.

The WSP and SSP tools provide:

  • Guidelines for needed source data and building the risk management team.
  • A graphical tool for constructing the flow diagrams of the system.
  • Checklists for identifying hazards and hazardous events for the different phases of the process. Predefined questions help to identify the presence of hazards and hazardous events.
  • National 4×4 risk assessment matrices with guidance. The matrices are based on the legislation in order to support the uniformity of risk assessment as well as surveillance of the authorities (Figure 2). In the WSP, the risk assessment is in two phases, without and with present risk management measures. In the SSP, the present risk management measures are taken into consideration in the first phase of the risk assessment.
  • Examples of possible control measures to manage any risks.
  • Templates for scheduling the improvement plans to implement the missing risk management measures.
  • Sorted lists of risks. The risks can be sorted either on the basis of their severity or by process points.
  • Guidance and templates for internal or external auditing of the risk management.

The easy to use, secure, online application offers a uniform toolbox for water utilities for hazard identification, risk assessment and risk management in the context of WSPs and SSPs.

By combining WSPs and SSPs in the same framework, the application improves the awareness of risks the sewage system poses to drinking water and supports the protection of drinking water from waste water related contamination.

The tools also provide background information for planning and assist water utilities in incorporating risk management into their overall decision-making and management processes. The application also serves health and environmental protection authorities in directing risk-based monitoring. The application has an option to allow authorities to follow the risk management process through the tool.




WSPs and SSPs in practice

The risk assessments are conducted in workshops, mainly in brainstorming sessions. One advantage of the tools is that they require cooperation between different organisational levels as well as with authorities, which facilitates the exchange of information.

In this way, the tools promote community learning, allowing common experience-based learning both within the organisation and between the different stakeholders.

Experiences from the first WSPs using the web-based tool indicate that the key for a successful WSP is a committed, multidisciplinary team comprised of water utility plant workers. Additional team members such as external experts are also needed, especially when dealing with risks associated with raw water abstraction and water distribution.

Based on the checklist data in the web-based tool, 70% of the risk management actions related to raw water quality require cooperation between the water utility and other operators in the area. On the other hand, this also means that water utilities cannot manage all the risks themselves but their stakeholders must be made aware of them and commit to the necessary measures.

In most cases, the WSP has shown that the most critical high level risks are already well managed and most improvements are needed to manage other high level risks. The methodological tool with the extensive list of identified hazards also assists in identifying new hazards in most water utilities.

Experience from the SSP indicates that critical risks are commonly identified in the sewage network rather than in the waste water treatment process itself. Typically, the condition of the sewer network and increased flow caused by storm water runoff and melting snow infiltrating through broken structures or illegal connections are the most commonly identified issues in the risk assessment.

In some small- and medium-sized waste water treatment plants, the risk assessment has revealed a vulnerability related to the human resources in cases where the person in charge of the treatment process usually works alone and the knowhow is not shared with others. This increases the risk for disturbances during holiday periods and off-duty hours.

Both WSPs and SSPs are resource-consuming exercises and require commitment from the utility’s management; first to do the exercise and then to implement the necessary improvements indicated by the risk assessment.

In addition to the risk management improvement measures, the preparation plans and crisis action plans often need updating in accordance with the results of risk assessment in order to ensure the continuity of operations in all situations.

The undeniable benefits of the web-based WSP and SSP tools are improved operational reliability and quality of operations through improved risk management and surveillance of the processes. Conducting the WSPs or SSPs increases the expertise of a water utility’s personnel and authorities as well as other stakeholders throughout the entire operational chain in question.

The tools also help in prioritising the investments to increase the security of water supply and sanitation services. The provided uniform risk assessment procedure improves the security of the services of the water utility using the tool, but also at a national level.

WSPs and SSPs in the future: soon to launch in Asia

The web-based WSP and SSP tools have been successfully used in Finland. The positive experiences encourage even wider application in the future, and not just in Scandinavia; the tool will soon be launched in Vietnam.

The use of the tools has already led to new ideas and suggestions to further improve them. Regular updates are planned and needed. These improvements will be made in close cooperation with water utilities.

By Riina Liikanen, Osmo Seppälä and Saijariina Toivikko, Finnish Water Utilities Association; Heidi Ekholm and Mari Heinonen, Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority; Heli Härkki, Pöyry Finland Oy; Jarkko Rapala and Raili Venäläinen, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health; and Kaisa Valkonen, The Water Protection Association of the River Kokemäenjoki

Read more: Water Matters

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