After two decades of water loss progress, why are leakage levels still so high?

Fixing a leaking water pipe

The last 20 years have seen much progress towards addressing water losses in urban water distribution systems. So much so, that there basically seems no significant advances left to make, nor completely new methods or technologies to be introduced that would change the situation dramatically.

Why then, after two decades of progress in developing technologies and best practices, do the vast majority of the world’s cities still have unsustainably high water losses? Losses that are exceeding economic levels, and which should be considered “irresponsible” when Climate Change and more frequent and more severe droughts are a reality.

And why are decision makers not taking action when physical losses are so high, sometimes 40% or more, that only half the population can be supplied with piped water?

In India, for example, urban water distribution networks are such that physical losses are so high that 99.9 percent of Indian cities have intermittent supply – sometimes only a couple of hours every few days. If physical losses were reduced to acceptable levels, nearly all cities could have continuous supply without any additional water resources.

Broken water main

São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolitan area, recently suffered an extreme drought. The water utility, SABESP, was forced to operate the system on an intermittent supply basis. As well as having many disadvantages for customers, intermittent supply physically harms the water network, resulting in an increased burst pipe frequency and consequently higher physical water losses after continuous supply has been re-established.

Imagine though, if SABESP had invested more in physical loss reduction, including strategic and well-targeted asset renewal over the last decade. Physical losses could have been cut by maybe 50 percent, removing the need for to intermittent supply during the drought.

So, why do we see so little progress in physical loss reduction?

1. Lack of understanding of the benefits of water loss reduction

Understanding the existing situation is critical. Utilities should account for every drop they put into the distribution system by establishing a water balance, , but too often not even the system input is properly measured.

There is reluctance for utilities to use proper performance indicators or, all too often, a lack of awareness that such indicators even exist. Regulators and governmental bodies are often not much better. With a water balance and the right performance indicators, you can calculate the water loss reduction potential, quantify volumes and value the savings.

2. Lack of incentives in utilities

Water Loss reduction, and especially physical loss reduction, isn’t much fun and, too often, nobody has any incentive to do anything.

Regulation is often non-existent or weak and utilities see no benefits in using limited resources reducing water loss. Utility CEOs and Boards have little financial incentive to tackle water loss. Mid-level management are often busy with day-to-day activities running the system. Field staff are often poorly paid and have few incentives to take action.

3. Absence of a comprehensive loss reduction strategy

Every loss reduction strategy is different, but all should answer the following questions: HOW MUCH water is lost? WHERE is the water lost? WHY is it lost? WHAT needs to be done? HOW to make water loss reduction sustainable?

If you can answer these five questions, you know everything and just have to write your water loss reduction strategy.

4. Human resource related constraints

Water loss reduction is a full-time job requiring a substantial number of staff. In most utilities, this means recruiting and training new staff.

Utilities need to choose, install, operate and maintain the most suitable equipment in the most efficient way. The average utility engineer or technician, especially in a small utility, will find it difficult to acquire sufficient technical know how.

5. Unrealistic budgets

Financial requirements for water loss reduction are frequently underestimated. Comprehensive reduction programs in low- and middle- income countries have payback times of between five and ten years, and provide significant long-term financial benefits, but require upfront funding.

Funding often covers the capital investments only; the water utility is supposed to shoulder all the operating cost. This often doesn’t work because it requires a significant operating budget that is not available.

6. Reluctance to invest in NRW reduction

Politicians want to invest in new structures, a new treatment plant for example. Digging of thousands of holes to replace aging pipes underneath traffic-congested roads brings only unwanted media coverage.

This is compounded by uncertainty over the promised savings from water loss reduction, and the inability of unities to calculate the expected benefits and “sell” the idea of investment to the key decision makers.

7. Reluctance to outsource water loss reduction

Research shows that in water utilities with high water losses, performance based contracts deliver better, faster and more cost effective results. So why are water utilities reluctant to outsource?

The advantages are obvious: faster results and improved financial benefits; water loss reduction is labor intensive, a private contractor can hire more staff, more efficiently; and a specialised contractor has all the expertise that a utility doesn’t have.

8. Lack of leadership

In the end, successful water loss management comes down to one main issue: leadership. Whether water loss reduction will be outsourced or done in-house, it can only be successful if it has the full support of the senior management and Board. A failure of leadership will condemn utilities to failure. Luckily, there are plenty of examples around the world of excellent leadership from which to take inspiration.


Roland Liemberger is Chairing the IWA Water Loss Specialist Group training session at the World Water Congress and Exhibition, Brisbane (09 – 13 October, 2016):

NRW Assessment and Management in Low and Middle Income Countries

Training Session
Date: 09 October 2016, 08.30 – 15.30
Venue: Room 9, Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre

In this interactive training, participants will gain in-depth knowledge on NRW assessment, using the IWA methodology, and get a good overview of the available NRW reduction interventions. Finally, they will get an update on latest trends and developments in the use of performance based NRW management contracts.

Roland Liemberger

NRW Management Advisor at Miya
For the last thirty years Roland Liemberger has worked on Non-Revenue Water (NRW) reduction and water utility efficiency improvement projects around the world, primarily in Low and Middle Income Countries. Roland was involved in several large NRW red... Read full biography