Water Service: Leakage Management and Water Efficiency

The Assembly's independent auditor, Mr John Dowdall, published a report today on action taken by the Water Service to reduce the amount of water lost through leakage and to promote water efficiency to reduce the amount of water wasted by customers.

Treating water for public consumption is expensive and losing treated water through leakage or inefficient use by customers, is a waste of a valuable resource. Water Service is progressing plans to develop a new source at Hog Park Point on Lough Neagh, which is expected to cost £72.5 million. Reducing the amount of water lost through leakage or used unnecessarily by customers could have implications for the timing of this project.

The report recognises that it is not practical to eliminate leakage completely, but recommends that Water Service should aim for an "economic level of leakage". This means that leakage is reduced to the point where it is more costly to make further reductions in leakage than to produce water from a new source.

The report includes the following main findings:

  • An average of 253 million of the 692 million litres of water produced every day is lost as a result of leaks. Leakage levels in Northern Ireland have been relatively static in recent years and Water Service has not kept pace with the privatised water companies in England and Wales, where leakage has reduced significantly. Water Service attributes this to restrictions in funding and the need to give higher priority to its statutory obligations for drinking water and waste water quality.
  • Water Service calculated an economic level of leakage in 1998 which provides the basis for its leakage reduction plan. In its present form, however, it cannot be regarded as an accurate measure because it ignores the cost of the proposed new source and relies heavily on estimates rather than accurate data.
  • Water Service plans to reduce leakage to 177 million litres a day by 2003. This represents a reduction of between three and seven per cent a year, which is well short of reductions achieved in England and Wales. In the opinion of the Audit Office, this is too conservative and target reductions of between 12.5 and 15 per cent a year are likely to be economically justified. It is accepted, however, that the imposition of such targets would be impractical given Water Service's funding restrictions.
  • Water Service published a Water Efficiency Plan in April 2000 but prior to this, water efficiency had been given a low priority, with little resource or effort devoted to it. Since April 2000, Water Service has issued a "Using Water Wisely" leaflet to all households and has produced a series of checklists to allow customers to audit their use of water. The report welcomes these initiatives but states that Water Service needs to continue to develop its strategy in this area.
  • Metering has the potential to make customers more aware of the resources they consume and gives them an incentive to use water more efficiently. This is particularly true of those who use large amounts of water for non-essential purposes such as garden sprinklers. The present system of financing the Water Service directly from taxation does not provide for the use of metering in this way. The report recommends that, in developing any future proposals for the provision of water and sewerage services, consideration should be given to the advantages of metering.
  • In the opinion of the Audit Office, action on leakage reduction and water efficiency has been insufficient to maximise the potential for reducing demand. The report estimates that, if the new source at Hog Park Point is built earlier than necessary, this would cost £3.3 million for every year in advance of need.
  • Water Service is currently reviewing its Water Resource Strategy and anticipates that the need for, and timing of, any new sources will be determined by the outcome of this review. The report endorses this approach but emphasises the need to make the best use of existing sources by reducing leakage and improving efficiency, before resorting to new ones. To this end the report recommends that Water Service should establish adequately funded plans to reduce leakage to economic levels.