Judy Anderson - account leader, water consultancy executive
In the UK alone, over 3,100M litres of water are lost every day due to leakage from water distribution companies’ distribution networks, and consumers’ supply pipes. Research body UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) has identified water leakage as one of the foremost challenges facing the sector and has set the ambitious target of net zero leakage by 2050.
According to World Resources Institute data, seven EU countries, including Spain and Italy, are currently suffering from water scarcity, and on a more local scale, the Environment Agency has warned of water supply shortages in England by 2050 unless drastic measures are taken to lessen water use and wastage. Enough water is lost through leakage each day in England to meet the needs of 20M people.
“As we see increased growth, there's obviously more pressure on water supplies. And if we look to the future, with climate change potentially bringing us drier summers, then you see even more stress on those stocks,” says Mott MacDonald water consultancy executive Judy Anderson. “Obviously, if you're restricted in the amount of water you have, you don't want to be leaking it away – yes it costs you money, but it's also wasting what is likely to become an increasingly precious resource in the near future.
“In many countries around the world, particularly in areas of real water stress – the Middle East, for example – they're absolutely astounded that in the UK we don’t have metering everywhere to control leakage.”
Water companies are currently only required to fix leaks where the cost – environmentally as well as monetarily – would be greater than not fixing it, called the economic level of leakage. But one issue is that until water becomes visible above ground, it can be very difficult for the water company or consumer to know where a leak is coming from, or even that it exists at all. The easiest identifier for spotting a leak is that more water is being put into a system than is being taken out, but again, thanks to the vastness and complexity of water networks, it can be extremely difficult to determine where a leak has occurred.
A more digital approach could be key. Water companies have been discussing the outcomes that they believe could make a substantial difference to leakage in order to reach the UKWIR 2050 net zero target, and digitisation has the potential of revolutionising leakage reduction targets. Smart networks, predictive software to identify potential future leaks, and optical fibres for better leak detection are just some of the identified avenues where digital technologies have the potential to revolutionise the sector.
“With all those kilometres of pipes, it's important that you know where you’re actually losing water. You can see how a digital solution would help companies to pinpoint where a leak has occurred,” says Anderson, “which means that fixing it would be quicker, easier and cheaper, because you’d know specifically where to target, or even know proactively what to do before a leak starts. The more you can pinpoint where a leak is and how big it is, then the cheaper you’re going to be able to fix it."
“Water is such a precious resource, and if you look to the future you can imagine a world – particularly because of climate change – where it is increasingly unacceptable to waste water by letting it leak out of your pipes.”
Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures is sponsoring the Accelerator at NCE TechFest. We have set digital innovators five key infrastructure challenges to explore where their skills and expertise can bring benefits to our industry. If you think your digital tools, services or expertise can help, apply for the Accelerator now.