Government has called for us to reduce individual water usage amid headlines that Britain faces widespread drought by 2050 as the amount of water taken from waterways and groundwater abstraction in 2017 was unsustainable in more than 20% of cases.
It is true to say that the UK population is growing and expected to exceed 58 million by 2026 and that climate change is resulting in warmer temperatures and drier conditions, placing further stress on water supplies. However, the elephant in this increasingly arid room is the fact that approximately 30% of all clean water treated and distributed by water companies is lost to leaks. An astonishing level of waste that has remained constant and significantly unmitigated for many years.
How did it get this bad?
From the water companies’ perspective, this is a complex issue with significantly historical origins.
The privatization of the UK water industry in 1989 transferred a run-down asset in the form of the water treatment and distribution network to private enterprise. Since then, water companies have been obligated – through regulation – to invest, improve efficiency and deliver shareholder value while simultaneously limiting consumer costs and enabling the government to evidence much-needed investment without taxation or borrowing.
Governing this arrangement is a regulatory credo for England and Wales; a conflicted model that simultaneously ensures water companies earn a good rate of return alongside a socially progressive cap on consumer prices. This outward balance, however, is missing. Water prices have risen 64% in the last decade – twice the rate of earnings – while the top nine water companies have made profits and paid dividends exceeding £36 billion in the same period.
The profits delivered through this model are contingent on continued investment with a focus on new infrastructure and sweating assets over maintenance of current infrastructure. Yet less than 1% of our water network is being replaced each year, so it is little surprise to see leakage increasing. Indeed, many of our largest water companies now spend their entire leakage budget to prevent the situation worsening, with little prospect of ever significantly reducing overall leakage.
A different approach
Leak detection solutions have enduringly come in the form of acoustic technologies; sonic and ultrasonic listening devices that can “hear” leaks and trigger alerts that water companies can act upon. Here, the limited travel of sound underground is both a benefit and a weakness. If a leak is detected, it will be close to the device and therefore easy to locate. But since effective range is limited to around 300 meters, many thousands of devices are required to cover an entire network.
Consequently, the cost to purchase, deploy, manage, maintain, and operate an acoustically enabled network is high, particularly in an aged environment like the UK. Many water companies are investing in acoustic devices but it will be many years before these are widely deployed, operate effectively, and make a difference.
At Capgemini, we have taken a different approach. We considered how we could enable leaks to be found and fixed faster, at lower cost, without additional assets or manpower while informing smarter decisions for network replacement with biggest impact. The outcome – our Smart Leakage Management solution is based on the data water companies already have rather than the assets they don’t and has already proven to be over 80% effective in detecting leaks as soon as they happen.
We think it’s time to challenge the leakage status quo and the dogma of ‘economic levels of leakage’ not just because consumers are funding 30% loss of this increasingly scarce resource but also, if we don’t, we could soon be experiencing significant water shortages across the UK.