Water companies losing vast amounts through leakage, as drought fears rise

Fears of a drought are rising after an exceptionally dry spell and water companies are asking customers to save water, but the vast amount of water that leaks from company pipes every day has not fallen for at least four years, according to a Guardian analysis.

Furthermore, many companies in the parched south and east of England have been set leak reduction targets for 2020 of zero or even targets that could allow leakages to increase. Critics blame a system where it is “cheaper to drain a river dry than fix a leak” and say it is unfair to place the water saving burden on customers while 20% of all water leaks out before it even reaches homes.

The UK has seen the driest October to March period for 20 years followed by an extremely dry April in England and Wales, where rainfall was two-thirds below normal, leaving many farmers worried. River flows are now below normal in 35 out of 41 sites monitored by the Environment Agency.

In the populous south-east region in April, rainfall was just 20% of the long term average. Middlesex was the driest county with just 12% of expected rain, while central London had only 9%. The outlook for the next few months remains dry.

The lack of rain, called “particularly acute” in the south-east by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, prompted some water companies to ask customers to save water by, for example, ensuring washing machines and dishwashers are fully loaded.

But data from the water industry regulator Ofwat shows more than three billion litres of water leaks every day, a level unchanged for at least four years and just 7% lower than the level in 2000. Major companies across the south and east, including Thames, Anglian and Southern have seen no significant reduction and one company, Essex and Suffolk Water has seen leaks rise by 15%, according to the Ofwat figures.

The leak reduction targets set by Ofwat for the period 2015 to 2020 are zero for six companies in the south and east and for Anglian, Southern and Essex and Suffolk, the targets would allow more leakage than the levels already achieved by the companies.

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 government on this issue,” said Sue Hayman, shadow environment secretary. “It is unfair that consumers are being asked to save water when companies are set unambitious targets.”

Rose O’Neill, water policy manager at WWF, 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, and waste in the home.”

She said water companies and Ofwat account for the cost of fixing leaks but not 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.”

Ofwat said water companies have to compare fixing leaks with other options, such as driving down customer demand or taking more water from rivers and acquifers, and said companies face financial penalties if leakage targets are missed. The next targets will be set in 2019 and a spokeswoman said: “We have proposed a series of measures to make leakage performance commitments more stretching.”

The government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), warned in 2016 that water shortages were one of the most serious impacts of global warming in the UK, with even modest temperature rises leading to “severe” water shortages in England. The CCC said measures to reduce both leakage and demand are needed.

Thames Water is the biggest water company in England and also the leakiest, with 20,500 litres escaping every day per kilometre of main, more than double the national average, and equating to 171 litres per property per day. “We are determined to bring the rate down,” said a company spokesman. “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 spokesman for Essex and Suffolk Water said: “Our leakage target has been the same since 2010 and is agreed with Ofwat based on the most efficient use of our customers’ money.” He said the company had one of the lowest leak rates when measured per property and that recent rises were due to variable weather and remained below the Ofwat target.

Southern Water has been set a target of 87m litres per day on average from 2015-2020, though this is above the actual leakage in 2015-16 of 84Ml/day. A spokesman said freezing winters cause more burst pipes: “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.”

Paul Valley, a director at Anglian Water, said Ofwat’s leakage targets were too 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.”

He said the company is aiming to beat the 2020 target set by Ofwat by 10%: “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.”

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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