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Building a strong water network starts with leak prevention

Competition for the supply of leak detection and prevention solutions in the GCC is heating up as the region steps up investment in various projects aimed at water conservation

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There is a need to encourage periodic infrastructure maintenance projects to reduce water leakages as damages frequently occur when leaks are undetected over extended periods
There is a need to encourage periodic infrastructure maintenance projects to reduce water leakages as damages frequently occur when leaks are undetected over extended periods

A study from the World Bank estimates that each year 32 billion m3 of treated water is lost through leakages in distribution network globally. An additional 16 billion m3 per year is supplied but not invoiced due to improper billing, poor metering or corruption/ thefts.

More than 10% of the UAE’s water supply is wasted in the distribution network and yet the country has performed better than its GCC counterparts. This is mainly because most of the water infrastructure has been setup in the past decade and is in good condition.

In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is estimated that 35% of water is leaked in distribution networks and according to a recent study conducted by Centre for Clean Water and Clean Energy, water leakage in pipeline networks across the Kingdom results in losses amounting to $820,000 annually.

This trend has led to an upsurge in the demand for leak detection and prevention solutions. The global water pipeline leak detection market is primed to grow by 11% at a compound annual growth rate through 2020, according to research by Electro Scan Inc.

The predicted increase is the result of rising concern over water conservation and booming demand for efficient leak detection systems.

Leaks can occur anywhere in the network however most leaks occur at joints in the pipeline and more often than not, at customer connection points. As the price of pipeline maintenance and replacement continues to climb for governments facing environmental challenges, many municipalities are turning to leak detection measures to avoid unnecessary water loss.

For many water utilities it is important to close the considerable gap between the volume of water they supply and that which is billed to the customers. This difference is known as Non-Revenue Water (NRW), or urban water loss, and it amounts to between 25 and 50% of the total water distributed globally.

It is caused by inaccurate billing and metering systems, leakage from deteriorating distribution infrastructures, excessive water pressure in distribution systems, reservoir overflow, unnecessary flushing and illegal connections to the network.

Certain environmental factors may place greater threats on water infrastructure – such as extreme hot or cold temperatures. Over time, however, most pipelines will start to deteriorate and require more frequent maintenance just to function. This can be costly as well a dangerous. If a pipeline bursts, the cleanup can be quite extensive – impacting infrastructure, the local economy and residential quality of life.

Leakage occurs in different components of the distribution system: transmission pipes, distribution pipes, service connection pipes, joints, valves, and fire hydrants. Causes of leaks include corrosion, material defects, faulty installation, excessive water pressure, water hammer, ground movement due to drought or freezing, and excessive loads and vibration from road traffic.

Leaks waste both money and a precious natural resource, and they create a public health risk. The primary economic loss is the cost of raw water, its treatment, and its transportation. Leakage leads to additional economic loss in the form of damage to the pipe network itself, for example, erosion of pipe bedding and pipe breaks, and to the foundations of roads and buildings.

“Critical leaks are the non-visible ones and most likely take place in the underground pipes. Leaks or chances of leaks depend on the age and overall condition of the network. Another factor is how well the pressure is managed in the networks,” says a report by Frost & Sullivan.

Whereas in Oman, its capital Muscat alone records 36% of water loss due to network leakage, according to the country’s Public Authority for Electricity and Water, the authority believes it could save $39mn annually if leaks are prevented.

“Having operated in the GCC for the past 6 years and representing a number of market leading manufacturers of water loss reducing technologies, I would assess the situation as a sizeable problem in most areas across the GCC,” says Jeremy Llewellyn, CEO, Blue Gold Technology.

“Contributing reasons for this include late adoption of active leak detection activities, historically poor workmanship during installation of older water networks, lack of investment in pipeline asset replacement, illegal connections as well as customers’ failure to timely report leakages.”

As the population continues to grow in the region and lifestyles continue to change and demand more water, there is a need to encourage periodic infrastructure maintenance projects to reduce water leakages as damages frequently occur when leaks are undetected over extended periods.

The main drive in the industry now is to remotely monitor networks for water leakage with an alarm type system when a leak occurs so that maintenance crews can attend and repair prior to any major breakage of significant water loss. This technology has improved rapidly over the past few years as telecoms networks and mobile platforms have increased in capacity, 2G, 3G, 4G, and so on.

Other technologies are in place to monitor for leakage via pressure and flow monitoring although these tend to focus on zone monitoring rather than the actual pinpointing of the leak location, however they are still a very important part of the process.

“There are still advancements that can happen.  The use of Wi-Fi as the platform for all communications in the future is a real possibility, and the pinpointing of leaks on plastic materials and transmission mains still require further improvements,” says Llewellyn.

The most persistent issue remains that of unidentified leakage. There is a wide belief in the GCC that because of its sandy soil, all leaks will immediately come to the surface. However, according to experts, this is not the case and that unseen leaks are often left running for years before they get identified.

The consumer pricing in many GCC countries is heavily subsidised and sometimes is zero cost to the consumer. Therefore, fixing leakage doesn’t increase the sales to the extent that it might in other countries where the water utility is selling water at a profit.  Also, the consideration for many utilities for increased water availability is to build additional desalination plants.

Competition for the supply of leak detection and prevention solutions has heated up over the last four years.  However the financial value of projects for the region is much lower than in Europe or North America.  Working in the GCC requires a different approach and this will mean peaks and troughs in financial opportunities for companies.

Leakage in a water distribution network can never be completely eliminated. However, experience has shown that combining an effective leakage management strategy with the latest technology can have a major positive impact on helping water operators to greatly reduce leakage in their networks.

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