Non-revenue water loss: the invisible global problem

Background

Water loss, or non-revenue water (“NRW”), is water produced for consumption, but never reaches the consumer. NRW is a problem that affects both developing and developed countries alike. The total amount of NRW worldwide is estimated at 48.6 billion cubic meters. Every day, 45 million cubic meters of drinking water, which could meet the needs of almost 200 million people in the developing world, are lost to the world’s water systems. In some low-income countries, this loss represents 50-60% of water supplied, with a global average estimated at 35%. Reducing NRW results in a greater amount of water available for consumption and postpones the need for investing in new sources, while simultaneously lowering operating costs.

Issue

Most NRW is due to leaky pipes and a general lack of efficient technology, methodology, and training. Addressing the issue means looking at infrastructure and utilities. Water utilities in many parts of the world characterize water loss as a secondary priority, because policy makers either have not yet realized the true economic and social impact of water loss, or have failed to address it because of the technical and politically unattractive nature of the issue.   Policy-makers have historically leaned toward expansion over revision. But in many areas of the world, if leakage is cut, there will be no need to expand to produce more water. Unfortunately, many leaders refuse to admit the level of loss they have. Raising awareness of the problem at local government level in addition to providing basic information on water loss management for key decision makers and CEOs, is a precondition for implementing change in the water sector in developing counties in particular.

Solutions

There is not a clear “one-size fits all” solution to water leakage, but leaders and policy-makers should follow the successful measures taken by multiple countries around the world, if they hope to remedy the problem.

Government-imposed targets on utilities

The United Kingdom, among others, has put water-loss reduction targets in place, which water companies are required to meet. Setting targets requires an examination of the amount of water loss as it relates to various economic factors. Creating an initial leakage reduction target is key to achieving an economic balance between the costs of leakage control and the benefits that accrue. Currently, no state in the United States mandates targets for water loss reduction.

Additionally, some countries, and several U.S. states have begun requiring utilities to conduct water audits. A water audit traces the flow of water from the site of water withdraw or treatment, through the water distribution system, and into customer properties. The audit usually exists in the form of an accounting spreadsheet that details how much water is being lost and where.

With properly conducted water audits and loss reduction targets, officials would be in a position to determine if shortfalls could be better met by reducing leakage than by increasing production. Right now, many have no way to know.

Emerging Solutions

In recent years, several companies specializing in reducing water loss have emerged, representing an important step forward. Miya is an example of one such company. Miya, founded by an American-Israeli businesswoman, has taken a holistic approach to water loss. Contrary to common belief, water leakage cannot be solved by simply replacing the worst pipes. A long-term fix requires an understanding of the entire system and managing pressure; with a pressurized system, work done in one section of pipelines affects all of the other areas in the system.

Before 2012, the Bahamas Water and Sewerage Corporation (“W.S.C.”) was supplying 12 imperial gallons of water to the system each day- and each day it was losing almost 7 million gallons. The W.S.C. attempted to solve the leaks over the years by replacing big pipes, but their attempts only provided a quick fix, not a permanent solution. In 2012, Miya won an $83 million ten-year contract to advance a more sustainable solution and provide a cost effective fix to a water system in shambles.

Miya’s holistic approach consists of a four step program: 1) In-depth analysis of the city’s water system; 2) Developing a financial model; 3) Implementation of the plan; and 4) Maintenance. In order to implement the plan, Miya hires and trains locals, creating jobs and leaving behind a trained work force that can continue to work on the project.

Prior to starting the project, the Bahamas was rationing their water and running the desalination facilities at full capacity. Nine months after starting the project, rations were no longer necessary, and the government subsequently mandated that the desalination plant cut back their production rate. Over ten years, the project is estimated to pay for itself, given the massive amounts of water and energy that will be saved after its implementation, not to mention the local jobs created.

Slowly but surely, efforts to reduce water leakage are spreading around the world. There have been substantial water recovery gains in Cambodia, Brazil, South Africa, and Malaysia, to name a few. But despite the fact that water loss recovery is good for business, good for customers, and good for the environment, leaders and politicians worldwide still prefer to expand production where there are shortfalls, despite the fact that the water from expanded production must necessarily flow through old, leaky pipes.

 

The title image features a water pipeline that runs along a footpath in the UK. According to the photographer and image owner, every joint in the pipeline was leaking. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license to Katy Walters who does not endorse this blog. 


Sources:

Sarah LaBrecque, Water Loss: Seven Things You Need to Know About an Invisible Global Problem, The Guardian (March 2, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/02/water-loss-eight-things-you-need-to-know-about-an-invisible-global-problem.

David Bornstein, The Art of Water Recovery, The New York Times (July 10, 2014),

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/the-art-of-water-recovery/?_r=0

Gunter Klein et al., Capacity Development for Drinking Water Loss Reduction: Challenges and Experiences, (Hani Sewilam 2011) available at http://www.unwater.unu.edu/file/get/774.pdf.

Malcom Farley et al., The Manager’s Non-Revenue Water Handbook: A Guide to Understanding Water Losses (Niels can Dijk et al. eds., 2008), available at http://www.waterlinks.org/library/non-revenue-water/nrw-handbook.