Water leaks and the case for metering

We may not be short of water in Scotland, but that’s no excuse for losing more than a third of drinking water before it reaches the taps.

According to the latest figures from Scottish Water, 500 million litres a day are lost. This is despite a six-year, £3.5bn upgrade programme that is due for completion in 2021. There has been year-on-year decreases in leakages and Scottish Water has consistently exceeded its targets. However, these figures just shows how much we still rely on Victorian infrastructure for this essential public service.

If it keeps raining and the reservoirs are full, why does it matter? Well, as Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie says “It’s not just a waste of water, it’s a waste of energy and money that’s gone into getting that water where it needs to be and in the right conditions. The challenge is immense when you’re dealing with Victorian infrastructure.”

Patrick Harvie added: “There’s a huge amount of further investment needed. The leakages have been cut, but that shouldn’t be a reason for complacency. It’s one of the many reasons why we absolutely have to keep Scottish Water in the public sector and resist the efforts to flog it off, privatise it or change it’s structure in some way.”

Leakage from the pipes isn’t an excuse for us as consumers to waste water. Many of us will have had smart meters installed to measure our gas and electricity usage. Water infrastructure is often overlooked when smart metering issues are considered or discussed and the sector has arguably been slow to harness the power of new technology. It is often seen as an “invisible utility” which is taken for granted, except during a period of drought or during pollution incidents.

There is evidence that smart meters could curb domestic water use, even if the take up so far has been modest. However, Scottish Water is not convinced and neither is the Scottish Government, which would have to fund them.

The biggest English water company,Thames Water, would face a supply shortfall of 133m litres per day by 2020, rising to 414m litres per day by 2040 if the trend for increased demand continues. As a result they have embarked on a smart metering installation programme that will see 414,000 smart water meters installed in London by 2020. By 2025 they will be dealing with 35 billion hourly meter reads every year.

In England and Wales, consumers have a right to have a meter installed and more than half have done so, claiming it makes them more water aware and results in significant savings on their bill. Research by the UK’s Water Industry Research body has found that the average family reduces their water usage by 10% to 15% after a water meter is installed.

Of course, the only people switching to a meter are those who think they will save money. Families with lots of young children and those with medical conditions (such as incontinence, weeping skin problems and renal failure) which necessitate high water usage are also likely to receive higher bills with a meter.

Another downside is that if there are leaks, you pay the cost of the leaking water until it’s fixed. There are some shocking examples of this with massive bills. One of the reasons water companies in England are so keen on metering is that they claim it helps them identify such leaks.

The advantage of the Scottish system is that charges are broadly progressive, being based on council tax bands rather than water use. Meters can put pressure on those who legitimately use large amounts of water to reduce their usage, with potential risks to public health. This has been the experience in the energy sector with self disconnection through pre-paid meters commonplace.

When the current infrastructure programme is completed and leakage reduced, it may well be that domestic meters will come back on the policy agenda.

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