In September this year, the EU Environment Committee met to discuss a revision of the Drinking Water Directive. As well as improving access to clean and affordable drinking water across Europe, another topic dominated the agenda – reducing the leakage rates among Europe’s water suppliers.
Waste caused by leaky pipes is not just a European problem. It’s something that is affecting centralized water supplies across the world. As the global water crisis looms, governments and supranational institutions are now looking into ways to fix this growing problem.
Central water leakage – how bad is it?
Across the world, there is a staggering amount of water that never even makes it to homes and buildings as it is lost to leaks in centralized pipe networks. Globally, around 46 billion litres of water is wasted this way each day. It’s a problem affecting both developed and developing countries, with some losing over half of their overall supply.
Although there has been much focus on issues such as water access and hygiene, the problem of central leakage has been overlooked until recently. Many of the initiatives around reducing waste have focused on households (becoming more water-efficient, fixing leaky faucets, etc.) without properly addressing the infrastructural supply problems. But recent research has revealed the extent of leakage waste, with organizations such as Arcadis producing a Sustainable Cities Water Index that includes non-revenue water (NRW) waste – water lost through central leaks, metering inaccuracies or illegal consumption – among its indicators.
What causes central water leakage?
The main problem is with the piping infrastructure in centralized water supplies. In many countries, the piping networks are at least 40-50 years old. In some countries, pipes haven’t been properly upgraded in over a century. Pipes are usually made from metal or, in many developing countries, asbestos-cement. As well as corroding over time, these networks have to withstand growing populations, with today’s systems often providing water for over 100,000 people. Upgrading such an extensive system is an expensive operation. It has been estimated that global spending on improving water infrastructure will total $41 trillion between 2005-2030.
In addition to this, there are a number of other factors which exacerbate the problem, such as:
- Weather conditions – both droughts and cold weather can increase the likelihood of leakage, with frozen pipes often bursting and dry soil damaging pipes.
- Water pressure – if pressure isn’t managed properly, this can damage the pipes from the inside.
- Delays in detection – With many of the hundreds of kilometres of pipes stored deep underground, it can often be days or weeks before leaks are discovered.
- Repairs inaction – even when leaks are identified, governments and local authorities are often slow to respond due either to lacking finances or not prioritizing the problem.
Examples of countries with leakage problems
United States – A 2017 report detailed how 6 billion gallons (over 27 billion litres) were being lost daily due to ageing piping infrastructure – between 14-18% of the country’s water supply. According to the American Water Works Association, around $1 trillion is needed to upgrade the infrastructure over the next 25 years.
South Africa – Amid the Western Cape experiencing its worst drought crisis in 100 years last year, a report was produced revealing that the country was losing 37% of its water due to old failing pipes.
United Kingdom – losses due to central leakages had increased to more than 3 billion litres a day – over 20% of the supply – in England and Wales in 2017. Problems were blamed on ancient pipe networks, with some not having been properly upgraded since the 19th century, as well as inaction from water companies.
Malaysia – is wasting over 4 billion litres daily – nearly 37% of the water supply – through leaky pipes, with leaks in underground pipe networks often going undetected for long periods. The government is struggling to meet the costs of repairs and upgrades.
Finding suitable solutions to these problems takes time, money and effort. One thing many countries are doing is trying to improve monitoring systems. This means implementing proper leakage reduction targets, better metering, improving leak detection and managing water pressure. This becomes easier as technology improves (e.g. drone technology being used to detect leaks).
But as has been highlighted, upgrade and maintenance costs are expensive. For some countries, replacing archaic pipes could take decades. For others, it may never happen. To properly address the situation, we may need more innovative solutions. It could be time to revolutionize the way we think about how water is distributed and managed.