Severe drought warnings issued as leakage targets missed

As southern England was warned to expect more water restrictions and impending drought conditions this week, new figures have revealed that two of the larger water suppliers are failing to stop vast quantities of water leaking through their pipes.

Thames Water and United Utilities Water, in the north west of England both failed to meet their leakage reduction targets, set by Ofwat, by thousands of litres per day.

Of the water passing into Thames Water’s pipes, 915,000 litres per day is lost through leakages – the equivalent of 366 Olympic sized swimming pools or nearly a third of its tital supply – while United Utilities loses 500,000 litres.

Although Thames figure represents progress, in that it reduced the leakage for the first time in four years, Ofwat said the level was still unacceptably high.

United Utilities Water, however, reported increased leakage for the third year running. Despite this, the regulator said he would not impose fines on the failing companies because they were at least making progress.

Philip Fletcher, Director General of Water Services said: “We will continue to monitor closely the leakage control work of Thames and United Utilities to ensure they improve and meet their leakage targets.”

“Although Thames started to work hard four years ago on the agreed action plan to understand and reduce leakage in London, levels have only recently started to fall. The huge difficulties in turning round rising leakage should be a clear warning to all companies that they must be vigilant in controlling leakage.”

The water restrictions and dry weather in the south have brought the leakage figures into sharp focus. Maurice Terry, Chairman of WaterVoice said the failures were totally unacceptable, but stopped short of blaming the current water shortage on the leakages.

“We must guard against the tendency to make a direct link between today’s figures and water shortages in the south of England. Leakage is not the smoking gun,” he said. “Leakage is simply one contributory factor on which water companies need to work. All households and businesses should use water wisely.”

Barbara Young, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency was far more critical of the performance. Speaking at a public meeting of the Board of the Environment Agency she said that overall leakage had not improved significantly in the last five years and that the two large suppliers should do far more to tackle their unsatisfactory leakage problems.

Overall, total reported leakage dropped by 41,000 litres a day, meaning the amount of water saved is enough to supply the daily needs of more than 100,000 households.

However, this is still a mere fraction of that lost daily by Thames and United Utilities. Thames alone loses enough to supply around a half a million homes.

Ofwat has now set Thames the target of reducing leakage to 725,000 litres a day by 2009-10 – a task that will involve replacing more than 1,200 km of water mains over the next five years at an estimated cost of nearly £500 million.

The regulator has also approved United Utilities action plan which is expected to reduce leakage in line with targets set by Ofwat.

However, Barbara Young warned companies not to be complacent in their future plans: “In our view, there is too much reliance in water companies’ future plans on new sources of supply – the creation of new reservoirs, for example. We don’t rule out the possibility, but we will not license any new resource development unless it can be clearly demonstrated that there is no more benefit to be drawn from improving efficiency and managing consumer demand.”

It is expected that, as the dry weather continues, the environmental impacts will become more evident. At the Environment Agency meeting this week, the Board heard that the impact of summer storm sewer overflows combined with increased temperatures on water quality and fish mortality is already becoming evident. Barbara Young said this underpinned the case for a Thames ‘super sewer’ to prevent a repeat of last year’s disaster (see related story).

By David Hopkins

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie