How a drought-hit Europe plans to plug its leak problem

New water monitoring technologies and collective action are key to improving water resiliency in the face of a more extreme climate and global water scarcity

Europe is losing a fifth of water to leaks in pipes, and as droughts increasingly hit countries crippled with ageing infrastructure and growing populations, companies and organisations have stepped up the push for technologies that can better detect leaks, and manage water.    

Europe has a serious leaking problem. Every year around 25% of water is lost to leaks in water pipes, estimates EurEau, and in a time of more droughts plaguing countries, what could be fixable and preventable is only adding to water scarcity.

This summer, Spain’s reservoirs dropped from their usual 63% full to just over 45%, while in France in almost one-in-five French départements, homeowners were banned from filling their swimming pools. Meanwhile, last year, severe drought hit the western Mediterranean with many parts getting persistently low rainfall for over 12 months, reducing soil moisture and river flows, and stunting plants and crops, according to a European Commission report published in May. 

As a result, long-term water resources must be viewed through the lens of how it will be impacted through the likes of climate change, population growth, and the different ways water is used, says Paul Hickey, Managing Director (RAPID) at Ofwat, the water regulatory body for England and Wales. Europe's population currently stands at 742 million but is forecast to hit 753 million by 2026.

“We need to make water supply more resilient to the impact of drought while continuing to protect the environment. Drought is expected to become more frequent and severe due to climate change,” says Hickey.

Encouraging households to use water efficiently is important, but a major problem for the distribution system is ageing infrastructure straining to keep up with demand. And the old pipes are simply going to start leaking more, says Michael Purvis, co-founder and director, SEAL Water Technology (SWT), who adds, “anything done to find leaks, better methods of repairing them, putting new pipes in are going to be beneficial.”


The necessity of water monitoring 

SWT has developed Active Pulse Leak Detection, a new leak-detection technology and is just one of a plethora of new processes and emerging technologies for water leakage monitoring and leak detection being developed that will play a vital role in long term goals to improve water infrastructure. 

But it all starts with water monitoring. 

“The measurement of all supply and consumption flow streams is absolutely essential in order to establish a reliable water balance calculation and obtain a good estimate of water leaks,” says Mark Sklivaniotis, chairperson of the EurEau working group on leakage.

While locating leaks is equally essential to fix urgent problems, information gathered by the calculations and the field experience provides the basis for effective planning of the infrastructure improvements in geographical and temporal terms, says Sklivaniotis.

This includes smarter water management, where monitoring systems provide real-time data on water flow, pressure, and quality, which lets water utilities improve distribution, identify areas with high consumption, and prioritise maintenance.

Then there is cutting down on wasted water. Leaks, theft, and metering inaccuracies contribute to non-revenue water, says Sklivaniotis: “By promptly detecting and addressing leaks, we can minimise water loss and make sure our water resources are well-utilised.”

Saving money may be obvious, but water loss due to leaks is expensive for utilities and by reducing it, money can be saved
on expenses associated with treating and distributing lost water. “These savings can then be invested in improving infrastructure and implementing sustainable practices,” says Sklivaniotis.

"There is an acceptance in the sector that to achieve the necessary change, which is underpinned now by government targets, there needs to be a level of technology and innovation that is different from what we do currently," says Hickey.

Emerging processes and technology 

In the UK, the Ofwat Innovation Fund has supported numerous leakage reduction products, including the establishment of a National Leakage Centre. 

Those benefiting from over £1m of funding include Hafren Dyfrdwy, Severn Trent and its partners to investigate and deploy the use of dark fibre leakage detection that uses lasers to detect noises from leaks through unused fibre optic cables placed into or alongside a water main (see panel).

Other areas of progress are on the Internet of Things (IoT), the devices and sensors that enable real-time monitoring of water infrastructure, detecting changes in pressure, flow rates, and temperature to identify leaks or infrastructure issues, while acoustic leak detection uses sensors to listen for sounds associated with leaks in water pipelines, allowing utilities to quickly locate and prioritise repairs.

Pressure Management Systems can monitor and control water pressure in distribution networks, reducing stress on pipes and minimising the risk of leaks, while Blockchain Technology aids data security and transparency in water management, tracking water usage, billing, and maintenance records accurately and securely.

Using Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), where smart meters provide real-time data on water consumption, allows utilities to detect leaks and monitor usage patterns more accurately, and Remote Sensing and Satellite Imagery lets satellite imagery and drones identify areas of vegetation stress, indicating potential underground leaks and aiding in leak detection.

But what is important is how improved smart sensors and information technology advancements complement each other. 

Smart sensors are developed for water metering as well as for detecting points of leakage, and information produced by these sensors is now so vast, says Sklivaniotis, that management and extraction of useful results is a matter for specialised IT products. And lately, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a tool that increasingly comes to the aid of human engineering evaluation.

AI, and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms analyse data from sensors and meters, detecting patterns and anomalies to predict and identify leaks or areas of high-water consumption.

Considering all the processes behind small and large-scale water monitoring and leak detection methods, Sklivaniotis says the two simplest actions are intelligent planning, and careful fieldwork. 

“The installation of an incredibly large amount of field sensors, apart from the universal consumption metering devices, is not necessarily the best or economically efficient practice,” he says, stating that a relatively limited number of sensors monitoring pressure and flow at the District Metering Areas (DMA) can produce excellent results if well planned, based on the architecture of the distribution network.  

Still, adds Sklivaniotis: “All this investment can produce poor results if it is not properly maintained and monitored so that the data produced are reliable. In the era of AI, the human factor remains very important for every system to run smoothly and efficiently.”

As do those solutions based on nature. These can be the keys, and the most important to develop in the context of actual ecological transformation leading to minimal carbon footprint and integration in the environment. Leakage detection with dogs is a prime example that is more and more extensively used in many countries worldwide, including France and the US. 

‘Open data’ as a tool for development  

One area set to have a major impact is data. Advanced Data Analytics, where techniques like data fusion and predictive modelling provide utilities with insights into their water infrastructure, helping them identify issues and optimise maintenance operations, are becoming more common.

"We have an enormous opportunity in the next five years to make a big change. An increase in the level of metering will provide a rich source of data in terms of where leaks occur,” says Hickey. 

More data not only gives information, it allows for a real opportunity for much better use of that data. Combined with the power of AI, Hickey believes the industry can move beyond simply measuring and embracing its power to get a more sophisticated way of leakage detection and control.  

“It can enable a more proactive approach – not just fix and failure, but also trying to anticipate where problems will take place. How can we, not just respond to leaks, but anticipate which parts of the system are vulnerable to them, and link that to more active maintenance and vigilance?”

Hickey adds that an important part of Ofwat’s current agenda is ‘open data’: “We should be sharing data, pooling it so we get maximum benefit from it and treating it as a valuable resource, not a nice to have.”

How are global organisations tackling water scarcity? 

While technological advances are crucial, there is the question of what are the wider social actions taken across other areas and sectors, and from organisations such as the European Union to tackle the water crisis?

These are fast evolving, says Dominique Gâtel, a member of the EurEau’s committee on drinking water. In 2006, EurEau advocated for a quantitative water action to complement the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which triggered the EU Blueprint for water in 2012, paving the way for regulation on water reuse for irrigation, finally adopted in 2020. 

The European Parliament, aside from the WFD, directly addressed  non-revenue water reduction under the Drinking Water Directive adopted in 2020, which requests Member States to assess water leakage levels, with a subsequent action plan. 

In parallel, yet not of a legislative nature, says Gâtel, member states are encouraged to adopt 'Drought Management Plans’ as part of the River Basin Management Plans, under the WFD. 

She adds: “Beyond the municipal water management, this WFD approach has direct implications for all actors, as abstraction
rights for agriculture, industry including the power sector, and municipal, are only granted up to the limit of minimal environmental flows, that is to enable freshwater life and ‘dependent terrestrial ecosystems’.”

Future challenges and risks  

From the progress, and solutions to finding, and repairing leaks, to backing it with legislation, the overriding fact remains that solving leaks is a collective effort that cannot fail as the risks of no action are many. 

On the financial side there is loss of income for the utilities, although that should be looked at in perspective with the costs of works, under an ‘economic level of leakage’ approach. There is also the unnecessary carbon emissions as leaked water was pumped out of the environment into the networks with electricity use.  

Another danger is that networks deteriorate slowly, to a point where action needs huge investments to restore acceptable network performance.  

Nevertheless, says Gâtel, non-revenue water in municipal networks is one among other issues when facing water scarcity, which is why all sectors must look into water efficiency improvement: more crop per drop in agriculture, water efficiency and reuse in the industry. A risk shown by the World Bank is that water scarcity gradually suffocates local activity.

For Hickey, what would happen if the levels needed are not achieved, is that: “We would have to build more assets, build more sources of supply, and potentially then it’s more expensive for people.

“But we, as a regulator, will keep pushing to ensure there is good information and knowledge sharing, and that we play our full part through things like the Innovation Fund, to help make it happen.” 

With 3.6bn people worldwide already having poor access to water, companies and utilities globally are continuing to strive for the best solutions possible in identifying leaks to ensure the future supply of water will be guaranteed for all through every climate and population change happening today, and yet to come.

Author

Noella is a journalist and editor who has written for national and international titles on a variety of topics, including all aspects of the built environment, and regeneration.