Despite unimproved water leakage levels, customers have been asked to save water in the U.K.

After the driest winter in two decades and a particularly parched April, fears of an impending drought in the United Kingdom (U.K.) are growing, especially with the water flow in 35 out of 41 sites monitored by the Environment Agency are below normal levels. While water companies have subsequently asked customers to save water, according to an analysis done by the Guardian, daily water leakage from company pipes have plateaued and not decreased for four years – nearly half a decade.

Many companies in the arid south and eastern regions of England have implemented leak reduction goals based on goals set by Ofwat, a regulator in the water industry, for 2020 of zero, or in some cases, the goals may even allow the rate of leakages in increase. Now, the system has come under fire for being a place where it is “cheaper to drain a river dry than fix a leak”, with advocates saying that is not fair for the burden of water saving to fall on the shoulders of customers while a fifth of the total water distributed is lost before it even gets to its destination.

Ofwat is responsible for the setting of water leakage target goals for water utilities, based on an approach called the economic level of leakage (ELL). The Consumer Council for Water has thrown its support behind the “principle that the cost of reducing leakage levels should be less than the cost of replacing that water from another source”.

According to WaterWorld, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sue Hayman had been quoted as saying, “The fact that water companies have made no progress in reducing water leakage over the past four years highlights the lack of focus and pressure from [the] government on this issue…It is unfair that consumers are being asked to save water when companies [have] set unambitious targets.”

Data from Ofwat shows that every day, more than three billion litres of water is lost in the network, only seven per cent lower than the level found in 2000, and unchanged for the past four years.

Large companies have not managed to bring down their water leakage, with Essex and Suffolk Water seeing their water leaks increase by 15 per cent, according to Ofwat.

“Our leakage target has been the same since 200 and is agreed with Ofwat based on the most efficient use of our customer’s money,” A spokesman for Essex and Suffolk Water explained. He continued on, saying that the company was one of the least leaky when measured according to per property, and that the recent spikes in water leakage could be traced back to the variable weather, though their rates remained under the target Ofwat set.

And Thames Water, the nation’s largest water utility, also reportedly experiences more than double that national average leakage rate with 20,500 litres of water disappearing daily for every kilometre they have of main pipes, and coming up to around 171 litres of water per property served.

“We are determined to bring the rate down but large scale mains replacements are disruptive, especially with two-thirds of our network running under the busiest and hardest to reach roads in London,” a spokesperson for Thames Water reportedly said.

“Customers routinely tell companies [reducing leaks] is their top priority, yet a third of all water that is taken from the natural environment is still wasted, through leaky pipes, inefficient processes, ans waste in the home,” World Water Forum’s water policy manager, Rose O’Neill, said. She went on to state that water companies as well as Ofwat do take the cost of fixing leaks into account, but unfortunately not the cost of taking water out of the environment. “This means it is cheaper to drain a river dry than fix a leak and is one of the reasons we have seen so many rivers dry up this spring.”

In the case of Ofwat setting goals that leave room for company water leakages to increase, there is Southern Water. Given a target of 87 million litres of leaked water a day on average from 2015 to 2020, this might have been a goal to work towards if the actual company water leakage from 2015 to 2016 had not been 84 million on average per day, below the set target. However, Southern Water has pledged to lower water leakage to 75 million litres by 2014. A company spokesman pointed out that the freezing winters caused more pipes to burst, going on to explain, “Therefore, we try to outperform our target during mild winters, so when we have a harsh winter we have some room to take the adverse weather into account.”

Nevertheless, Paul Valley, a director at Anglian Water, which is committed to beating the 2020 target of a 10 per cent reduction in water leakage Ofwat set, is of the opinion that the regulator’s targets are weak: “We don’t believe it’s good enough to stop at the targets set by our regulator, not when reducing leakage is so important to customers and so vital for us in this dry part of the country. Addressing the challenge of leakage is one of the reasons we can be confident that there won’t be a hosepipe ban in the Anglian Water region this summer. We’re going further than most of the industry. This is a plan that our customers explicitly supported when we spoke to them about it.”


Sources: The Guardian, WaterWorld