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Tackling the challenge of water supply leakage

19 July 2010

The welcome rain we’ve had down here in the south eastern corner of the country of late set me thinking about water supplies again. Back in April, I touched upon the subject of ‘water footprints’ in this column and, in my searches for more information, discovered the astonishing statistic that the UK imports some two thirds of its total water footprint in the form of manufactured goods, energy and food.

The UK’s reliance on this ‘virtual’ water is exacerbating water shortages in other countries – a moral point I have no intention of expanding upon here, but one that is worthy of a bit of navel gazing, nonetheless.

Most individuals and organisations here in the UK probably don’t consider water footprints to be a significant issue, but those close to the water supply industry believe it is only a matter of time before we need to take our own rates of consumption rather more seriously than we do at present.

Last week, I caught up with an ardent campaigner for more efficient management of our water supplies - Tony Hoyle - ABB’s flow measurement products manager and chairman of the Sensors for Water Interest Group (SWIG). Not surprisingly, given his professional credentials, the mantra ‘measure – control – reduce’ is a particular favourite of his, but one that he is also able to support with real industrial success stories demonstrating significant water consumption reductions. However, there is a much wider picture as he pointed out to me, holding up a recent national newspaper headline proclaiming that our water supply system leaks enough water to supply 22 million people every day.

In terms of leakage management, the UK is actually a global leader, despite an estimated loss of 3,600 megalitres of water per day from our supply network. The combined effects of a growing population – with particular concentrations in the South East - coupled with the likely impact of climate change on rainfall patterns, means that the time is ripe for finding ways to conserve and optimise the nation’s available water supplies. But it seems the UK’s water regulator, Ofwat has other priorities, as it seeks to reduce both infrastructure investment and the bills of consumers.

Mr Hoyle highlights the fact that the long term projections appear to show very little investment being devoted to leakage programmes from 2015 through to 2030. Whilst some measures will be taken in AMP5 (the current five-year water industry capital investment programme), the longer term view seems to be that the present water leakage rate is at an acceptable level, as far as the regulator is concerned, and relatively little further investment will be injected to bring it lower.

According to Mr Hoyle (pictured opposite), this is in stark contrast to the major programmes of the 1990s, which saw leakage drop from 225 litres/property/day in ‘94/95 to 145 litres/property/day in 1999/2000. The problem is exacerbated by the recent Ofwat determination, which saw several UK water companies abandoning or scaling down their leakage management programmes to fit the available budgets.

Whilst the water industry may have had a pretty bad press as far as leakage control goes, the statistics would suggest that this has not altogether been fair. Moreover, the industry has been quietly working with academic institutions and suppliers like ABB to develop innovative leakage reduction techniques that utilise sensor data and artificial intelligence to identify potential leakage sites before problems arise.

The three-year ‘Project Neptune’ (the Neptune control room is shown below) is a prime example of the world-class research that the UK is capable of in this particular field. Launched in April 2007, it is a partnership between Yorkshire Water, United Utilities, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, ABB and seven UK universities. Its aim is to show how real time data from devices installed across the distribution network can be utilised to help water utilities balance the issues of maintenance planning, water leakage, pressure management and energy management.

However, with the cuts that Ofwat has imposed upon the water utilities, one wonders whether projects of this kind will get the support needed in order that they may be successfully implemented. Clearly, the industry is very uncomfortable with Ofwat’s decisions and the regulator’s future is precarious, if the comments of some politicians are anything to go by. The Environmental Data Interactive Exchange website ( recently reported the views of Liberal Democrat peer and former Lib Dem environment spokesman Lord Redesdale, who wants to see Ofwat disbanded “by the end of the year”. Lord Redesdale was speaking at the first Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas exhibition and conference earlier this month where he accused Ofwat of failing to meet the challenge of sustainability, which the latter strongly refutes.

AMP is also the subject of some criticism because of the ‘boom and bust’ style cycle that it imposes on water industry investment. Tony Hoyle says that shutting down an entire industry every five years makes little sense. In the time between the peak spending of AMP periods, skilled labour is lost to other sectors and equipment suppliers wind down their operations. When the new AMP period kicks in and spending starts to increase again, he says, the result is always the same – it becomes that little bit harder and more costly to find the right workers and equipment.

He suggests that a better way might be to give water companies their own five-year investment time frames. Staggering AMP periods would create a situation where some companies are peaking when others are slowing down, giving constant employment for skilled workers within the industry.

And where are the fiscal incentives enjoyed by other industries (most notably the automotive sector) that are supposed to stimulate UK economic activity? Despite it being a worthy candidate for a much-needed cash injection, as we have seen with AMP5, the water industry’s own self-financed investment plans have been throttled back, stifling much-needed improvement projects and storing up problems for the future.

Mr Hoyle believes that water companies should receive financial incentives to get their projects started early or, at the very least, allowed to get at their AMP funding at special low interest rates if done during 2010 before the traditional peaks of the mid-AMP period, which corresponds to 2011 and 2012 for AMP5.

Les Hunt


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