Can innovation avert the looming crisis in the water industry?

As the environmental movement in the UK gathers pace, both citizens and legislators have increasingly recognised the need for a change in the way we view our country’s resources. However, progress relating to the nation’s water supply has been slow and a change in approach from the government and the water industry is needed to avert what has been described by the Environment Agency as the ‘jaws of death’.1 This term refers to the point at which increasing water demand surpasses the falling supply. The UK is expected to be unable to meet its water demands by 2050, and some suppliers such as Southern Water are fearful that without swift action supply will be just half of demand in their region by 2030.2 This would lead to profound and sudden changes in the way that many people enjoy their lives today, making it even more remarkable that the issue has received so little coverage in the national media.    

Long term causes of water scarcity

The driving forces behind the Environment Agency’s dire forecasts are primarily climate change and a rapidly growing population. Water suppliers unanimously expect higher temperatures and prolonged droughts to become more common and deplete the available supplies in our reservoirs, thereby creating water scarcity in ever more areas of the UK. This issue is compounded by a growing UK population expected to reach nearly 80 million people by 2050 leading to a surge in demand for water.3

The way in which water pricing is structured at present also contributes to the problem. Whilst the average person in the UK uses a whopping 143 litres of water per day compared to Western European leaders such as Germany (122 litres) and Belgium (115 litres)4, approximately half of the UK’s households have no financial incentive to reduce this consumption because they do not have a water meter fitted. These households are left to pay a flat charge based upon their property’s size and location which takes no notice of consumption levels.    

One must also consider the prevalence of leakage across the nation’s ageing infrastructure of pipes. Significant parts of the network date back to the Victorian era and even newly laid pipes are often of dubious quality, resulting in over 20% of all water leaking out of the system before it reaches household taps.5 The UK is seen as an international laggard in this area and has failed to learn from the example set by countries such as Australia and Japan who have driven down leakage in recent decades through a combination of new technologies and processes.6   

Innovation is beginning to tackle these problems

Faced with the vast scope and complexity of these challenges, the temptation is always to seek a silver bullet in the form of innovation. To the anxious water efficiency or leakage manager, the hope is that seemingly insurmountable issues are just one technological breakthrough away from being solved. Whilst this is wishful thinking, encouragement can be found in pockets of the industry as new technology begins to blossom. Portsmouth Water successfully reduced leakage by 19% last year by installing high-tech ‘noise loggers’ which can pinpoint leaks on sections of their network, and investment in such devices is becoming more commonplace nationally.7 In a similar vein United Utilities and Sutton and East Surrey Water are in the process of adopting narrowband internet of things communications which use 4G phone masts, providing data on their network of pipes every 15 minutes and radically improving the time taken to detect leaks.8 

One area in which innovation is also delivering tangible benefits is in the use of smart meters to simultaneously locate leaks and drive down consumption. The network of sensors and devices in a smart water grid can remotely monitor the water distribution system for fluctuations in pressure and flow, thus highlighting exactly where leaks have occurred and facilitating quicker fixes. Thames Water have used this to good effect, harnessing the power of their 450,000 strong network of smart meters to detect issues and thereby reduce leakage by 15% in the past year.9 Smart meters are also estimated to reduce a household’s water consumption by 17% and alleviate pressure on supply as consumers become more aware of their habits and spending.10     

Futuristic sounding ideas, pilots and trials also abound; ‘robotic swarms’ are a much-discussed potential solution to leakage which would see numerous small robots deployed in pipes to detect sound, temperature and pressure changes caused by burst pipes.11 Yorkshire Water recently put out an £800m tender for innovative solutions which include the deployment of self-healing pipes to fix leaks12, and Ofwat are planning to foster ideas such as these with an annual innovation competition which will provide £200m in funding for collaborative solutions which tackle systemic issues in the industry.13 This focus on joint working between regulators, suppliers and third parties is beginning to bear fruit in the form of a joint innovation strategy and plans for an industry Centre of Excellence, allowing for gaps in research to be identified and best practice to be coordinated from a single vantage point.14  

However, these promising signs cannot be taken as a guarantee of future success, especially in the short term. Much of the research currently underway is in its early stages and it is difficult to predict when fully operational products will be available for a nationwide rollout. Data sharing and collaboration is relatively new in a sector which has historically underinvested in innovation, and the challenges that are inherent in rolling out a new technology or process across a business are not easily overcome.  

The future lies in a blend of solutions

The reality is that the looming crisis can only be averted through a combination of bold measures taken by the water industry and the UK government. Only a handful of water suppliers have been granted permission to implement compulsory metering schemes, meaning that half of the country remains financially unaccountable for the quantity of water that it uses. The government is aware of this problem as the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) issued a report in April 2018 in which it recommended that all companies be allowed to implement compulsory metering by the 2030s.15 This would also show that the government has learned the lessons of its ill-fated attempt to roll out Smart meters in the energy industry, in which the voluntary nature of the scheme rendered it ineffectual.  

The government’s regulator Ofwat has also been accused of jeopardising the future of the industry by prioritising price cuts over resilience.  Several water suppliers have successfully challenged Ofwat’s determinations in the Price Review 2019 (PR19) with the Competition and Markets Authority, arguing that the prices and investment levels set for the period 2020-2025 endanger the industry’s long-term sustainability. Whilst Ofwat are reflecting the immediate voice of the customer in cutting prices, they must balance this with their responsibility to ensure that the country’s water supply is viable for many decades to come. Even welcome requirements such as a minimum 15% reduction in leakage for all suppliers must be properly funded.     

Whilst we await brave government measures and work collectively towards innovative breakthroughs, a huge amount can still be done by water suppliers and their customers to meet the industry’s challenges through other means. Bespoke customer engagement with households to deploy water saving devices such as Baby Dam bathwater barriers or save-a-flush bags provides a simple and inexpensive solution that can be implemented quickly. Strategic partnerships can also be forged between suppliers and their local schools and councils to educate the public on the financial and environmental benefits of using less water, whilst property developers working on new-build housing can be incentivised to install water efficient devices as standard. Investment in training for individuals who are laying and fixing pipes in the ground would also be beneficial as the time and money spent on detecting leaks seems disproportionate to that spent on fixing them.  

With a raft of measures such as these, the ‘jaws’ of death’ may yet be avoided and the long-term viability of the UK’s water supply can be secured through a combination of government, industry and consumer action. 

References: 

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/escaping-the-jaws-of-death-ensuring-enough-water-in-2050
2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-45448048 
3. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=People_in_the_EU_%E2%80%93_population_projections&oldid=368478#:~:text=A%20closer%20analysis%20of%20the,than%203%20million%20persons%20when
4. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/50167/1/blogs.lse.ac.uk-Water_prices_in_Europe_need_to_rise_substantially_to_encourage_more_sustainable_water_consumption.pdf
5. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/11/water-companies-losing-vast-amounts-through-leakage-raising-drought-fears
6. https://www.c40.org/case_studies/tokyo-world-leader-in-stopping-water-leakage
7.  https://www.waterbriefing.org/home/company-news/item/17355-portsmouth-water-drives-leakage-down-to-lowest-on-record-for-uk-water-companies
8. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-53274914
9. https://www.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/newsroom/latest-news/2020/jun/leakage-plummets-after-smart-water-network-upgrades
10. https://www.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/newsroom/latest-news/2020/jun/leakage-plummets-after-smart-water-network-upgrades
11. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2224098-swarms-of-golf-ball-sized-robots-could-detect-leaks-in-the-sewers/#:~:text=Swarms%20of%20floating%20robots%20could,leaks%20and%20blockages%20in%20plumbing.&text=Each%20robot%20contains%20a%20microprocessor,memory%20boards%20and%20a%20battery.
12. https://www.yorkshirewater.com/news-media/2020/yorkshire-water-tenders-innovative-800m-amp7-clean-water-contract/
13. https://wwtonline.co.uk/Error/AnoymousSubscribe?articleUrl=-200m-innovation-fund-confirmed-by-ofwat
14. https://waterinnovation2050.org.uk/
15. https://wwtonline.co.uk/features/smartening-up-is-uk-water-metering-ready-for-a-smart-revolution-

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Peter Edwarde Senior Consultant