UFW reduction increases drinking water supply

Reducing unaccounted-for-water (UFW) losses can significantly increase urban drinking water supplies in regions suffering from recurrent drought and water scarcity - tapping an already treated ready-for-consumption resource.

By Pamela Wolfe

"Drip... drip... drip..." goes the leaky faucet in my sink with increasing frequency as I look out the window on a typically rainy New England summer day and notice quite a few automatic lawn sprinkler systems contributing even more water to soaked green lawns. Water scarcity is a global issue, but it's certainly not a problem in New England - at least not this year.

Covering the global water and wastewater industry for nearly 18 years from a region well endowed with freshwater, makes me keenly aware of this unfair imbalance of resources. News reports on the tragedy of millions of children dying from drinking contaminated water, and on efforts by water-scarce cities and countries to create new water resources through water- and wastewater-reuse treatment plants makes one critical of unnecessary waste.

I never did see the sense of watering lawns for three months of each year with potable water treated in municipal plants. Water is so cheap in much of the US that this American dream shared by millions can easily be reached by those willing to regularly maintain lawns and pay an extra US$ 150 to US$ 200 a year, depending on the region.

Even though water is abundant in some regions, does it make sense when considering the costs involved in treating and distributing safe potable water, such as infrastructure, chemicals, energy, operations and maintenance, just to maintain a green lawn? Consumers, however, pay for this service. Water utilities, sophisticated in automatic meter reading, billing and revenue collection systems, successfully manage to make consumers pay for their high consumption.

Water scarcity, however, is an increasingly serious problem in many countries. Global water demand is rising as urban populations and industrial centres, especially in Asia, expand into mega-cities. Eighty percent of the people in the world that do not have access to water reside in Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank report "Water in Asian Cities" (www.adb.org), 80% of the population in most cities have access to water 24 hours a day, but almost no areas in Delhi, Dhaka, Karachi and Kathmandu enjoy continuous water service. In Manila, Philippines, piped water does not reach 42% of the population, who must instead rely on vendors, public taps and shallow wells for drinking water.

Domestic and industrial wastewaters disposed into surface waters without adequate treatment are polluting water resources, which are often shared by residents living nearby industrial facilities.

In Asia, surface water is generally good, but sources are becoming more polluted for several reasons. Environmental regulations, if they exist, are difficult to police and are rarely enforced in most Asian countries. Only a small percentage of collected wastewater is treated; most is discharged directly on land and in rivers and streams. For example, 10% of industries in Jakarta, Indonesia, that produce toxic waste send it for treatment, according to the ADB report.

For these reasons, the efficient management and consumption of clean drinking water is absolutely necessary in water-scarce regions, in cities where demand is rising more quickly than the supply. The reduction of unaccounted-for-water (UFW), due to leakage from pipes and commercial losses from illegal connections and poorly managed water meters, could increase available water supplies significantly; after all, utilities have already sourced and treated this clean drinking water. In Phnom Penh, non-revenue water dropped from 70% in 1993 to 23% at the end of 2001 following an aggressive campaign to save water in the distribution system.

In March 2003, Franz Drees of the World Bank explained that in Brazil, a five percent reduction in commercial losses costing US$ 0.34 per m3 could extend water supply coverage to an additional three million people. This is especially true where production costs or the costs of new water sources are high.

In Casablanca, Morocco, where droughts are common, the multi-utility LYDEC has helped save more than 25 million m3 of water, the equivalent consumption of a city of 800,000 residents, through a popular leak detection program that improved metering, detected and repaired leaks, and identified illegal connections.

Finally, in Nashua, New Hampshire, USA, I've saved gallons of water by fixing my leaky faucet! Hardly a contribution to the world's drinking water supply, but change starts at home.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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