Hey COP26, let’s talk about water leaks.

The next few days are a watershed moment for the planet. The point when all the monitoring and goal-setting since the Paris Climate Agreement needs to turn into concrete action.

Hey COP26, let’s talk about water leaks

LOOK BEHIND the headlines about COP26, fossil fuels and 1.5 degrees, and you’ll see the dawning realisation that there’s one issue which cuts across everything. That issue is water.

Climate change is felt through water – too much in the form of flooding, too little in the form of drought.

As humans clamour for ever more of the tiny less than one per cent of the earth’s water which is available fresh water , the sensitive ecosystems we share it with are struggling.

Last week’s Water Climate Call to Action by Cate Lamb, the UNFCC COP26 High Level Climate Action Champions Lead for Water, on behalf of water professionals around the globe was part of this.

Recognising the true value of water

Recognising the value of water and the opportunities it presents for both mitigating and adapting to climate change, their commitment to “immediate, transformational change starting today” was music to my ears.

But I’m always amazed at how hard it is to find an outright reference to water leaks among all the excellent work that’s being done.

It seems to be implicit in phrases like “building sustainable resilience”, “water management” and “increased distribution efficiency“.

But, hang on there. This is an issue which is losing an estimated 30 per cent of treated drinking water – water that’s been expensively and carbon-intensively abstracted, treated and transported – before it ever reaches our taps.

Why not call it by its name?

Tackling leakage cuts carbon emissions

UNESCO calls it out. It calls tackling water leaks a low or no regrets response to climate change. It adapts to it and mitigates against it.

Some four per cent of the world’s global power generation is used to make our drinking water. So, reducing leakage, certainly in areas whose power comes from fossil fuels, reduces emissions too.

Experts talk about an ambition loop for water: where pressure from businesses and civil society galvanises political action for change.

But consumers aren’t stupid. Putting the onus on them in form of water cuts, demands for water efficiency and increased bills to pay for expensive desalination plants is going to wear thin. Especially when they know one in every three glasses is being wasted whatever they do and however much they pay.

Raise global ambition on water leakage

Water leakage is difficult, messy and politically not very sexy. Around 90 per cent of it doesn’t show above ground. There is no photo opportunity, usually just the disruption of road works.

Add to this the fact that the vast majority of leaks are small and below the level of “economic repair”. Then, consider that a significant amount of leakage is actually coming from customers’ own pipes – not utilities at all. Who’s telling them? Who’s measuring it? A tap dripping once a second loses 10,000 litres a year.

All this means leakage has been in the too hard to do list for too long. Maybe that’s why even the World Bank suggests that non-revenue water, of which leakage is the vast part, should be limited to just 25 per cent of water input. Come on guys. We can do better than that.

What other industry would accept one product in every four being lost before it leaves the factory?

Use COP26 to focus political will

Part of the problem is that, for utilities in many parts of the world, water leakage is seen as a purely financial rather than a moral, reputational or environmental issue. That needs to change fast. If calls to action don’t work then political will and regulation is needed.

Regulation is why the UK has been such a world leader in leakage performance. It has more acoustic leakage loggers on its networks than anywhere else.

But these proprietary devices are old innovations now. They don’t go anywhere near the level of transformation we need and they don’t shed any light on customer leakage.

Yet talk of water innovation for climate change is too often based on shiny new infrastructure – not the boring grunt work of finding quietly seeping junctions on ageing pipework.

Remove barriers to smart leak detection through innovation

The UN itself notes that few countries have the natural and financial resources to continue increasing water supplies. The alternative is to make better use of available resources. Financial investors are coming round to this idea. There are some stand out examples of corporations making real change in this arena (I’m thinking of Microsoft and Accenture). But for the most part it’s too slow. This needs to happen now.

FIDO AI removes the traditional barriers to leak detection. It doesn’t require expensive permanent sensors, district metered areas, hydraulic models and digital replicas of water distribution systems, so-called digital twins.

It simply gathers its own data from water networks using simple free hardware to detect leaks in any area, even those with no existing smart technology, instantly finds the leaks and tells their size.

Determining leak size – something no other acoustic technology can do – is a game-changer in leak detection. It gives utilities the power to prioritise the larger more damaging leaks. They can also monitor or group the smaller leaks until they reach the economical level to prompt pipeline maintenance. This is totally new.

The more granular data FIDO’s hardware provides allows even more functionality, like leak monitoring for performance and prevention analytics, exact leak location, pipe material and it can be used for customer or network side leaks.

Innovation like this is imperative and a financial no brainer. This is especially true in areas where water scarcity looms, treated water is piped and power comes from fossil fuels. Has anyone mapped these areas? Perhaps they should.

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