Leakage from UK water company pipes was once again in tabloid headlines last week. In the face of potential hose pipe bans from United Utilities – and perhaps also by Thames Water – the Daily Mail had noted that enough water for 22 million people still leaks from water company pipes each and every day. This story quoted the Consumer Council for Water as saying that consumers want a better balance between restrictions on them (e.g. bans) and reductions in ‘waste’ by water companies (e.g. leakage). The story also quotes standard responses from UU and Thames, i.e. that (i) they are currently spending – and plan to further spend – large sums of money replacing old pipes and (ii) they have reduced leakage in the past few years.

We’ve noted some of the main issues around leakage several times before here at Waterstink. To counter selective information from Ofwat and the water companies we’ve showed a fairly long-run plot of recorded leakage levels since 1992/93 (see page 11 of our formal submission to the Cave Review). We’ve also noted that the ‘economic’ or ‘sustainable’ level of leakage is far more contentious than is often acknowledged. In a nutshell though, here are some key points to help make sense of rather partial stories – like this one in the Mail – that do seem to crop up again and again with insufficient depth or detail:

  • Going back to the earliest easily-available public records, leakage peaked around 1992/93, at about 31% of supply. It dropped to its lowest post-privatisation levels in 2000/01 (~20%). It then went back up quite sharply and only in recent years has started to come down again, to about 21% (i.e. not yet completely down to 2000/01 levels). Any statistics about reductions made in the last few years are therefore pretty meaningless, as they only refer to getting back to where we were in 2000/01
  • There do not appear to be readily-available, comparable data on pre-privatisation leakage levels. Given the black-hole in public finances for water sector capital expenditure from the mid-1970s to late-1980s however, I do suspect leakage was an issue. This of course depends on how serious the degree of degradation of the pipe network was during that period.
  • Leakage has not just been tackled with pipe re-lining, refurbishment and replacement. There have been various other network management tactics that have been employed, e.g. reducing pressure, which led to complaints by fire services, some years back, concerned about their ability to fight fires! Such exercises are legitimate of course – to a degree. However if more people knew about them they’d be seen as slightly underhanded, I suspect.
  • Ofwat and other stakeholders insist there is a trade-off point for leakage detection/remediation. They call this the ‘economic’ or ‘sustainable’ level of leakage. It’s the point where it costs more to find/fix leaks than it does to simply let said leakage persist. Once again, this is a legitimate thing to do because there will always be diminishing returns for this kind of work. However, we do know that new technologies/systems already exist that could affect the determination of the trade-off point. At the very least, the economic/sustainable level of leakage is far more dynamic than most people in the water sector readily want to admit. The unit costs of locating and fixing leaks change – for which you can generally read, reduce – all the time.
  • We also know that use of poorly-trained/cheap labour has led to poorly-jointed – and therefore leaky – connections being introduced into brand new plastic pipe replacements of worn out parts of the network. We have heard this independently from a range of sources. It’s worrying because what is supposed to be keeping the network sustainable for the next 50-100 years is actually introducing new problems for its future. Incidentally, we are paying top-dollar for this replacement programme – on the proviso that it’s soundly tackling leakage to leave behind a network fit for our children and grandchildren (who of course bear the debt levels currently being run up to pay for it!)…

It’s a real shame that the UK water sector can’t find a way to openly, honestly engage in dialogue on these issues – rather than just issuing standard damage-limitation PR statements. Dialogue is essential. Current levels of leakage – and people’s perceptions of them – are a major barrier to sustainably reducing water usage, say through greater voluntary uptake of meters or through personal water use reduction actions.

Every sector has some level of waste in its production processes – at least under contemporary business models (which may need to change as sustainability issues sink in). However, 20 percent does seem very high in the case of water. Besides the following was once shared with me during some fieldwork. Other utility sectors even in the UK have a much stricter approach to leakage. In the gas sector leakage is most definitely not tolerated (for obvious reasons!). And yet the gas and water utility sectors share many similar infrastructure issues – e.g. a product transmitted under pressure, through largely underground piped networks (with ageing networks and historical underinvestment), to almost every home and business in the country etc. etc.

One further aspect of the above story from the Mail is also worth mentioning to close. Apparently UU left a water leak unfixed outside a Lancashire home for around a year, even though the affected resident had reported it. This reminds me of my own personal experience. In my case I had spotted a substantial leak out of the surface of a fairly busy road in South Manchester. I promptly called it in to UU. I had to use an 0845 number as I recall, i.e. it cost me to do UU’s work for them! I also had to give as much – if not more – information to UU than I would have had to had I been reporting a crime to the police. Hardly a system to encourage proactive, altruistic behaviour, I’m sure you’d agree!

The piece in the Mail quotes assurances from UU that the system is now easier and more responsive. Sadly I can’t personally confirm this, having moved out of their service region some years back. Either way, UU – and the other UK water companies – are going to have to get their houses in order on the issue of leakage if they are ever going to get the UK public sufficiently onboard as active partners for much needed water resource sustainability measures that are bound to be needed throughout the coming decades…

Duncan Thomas

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