08 Mar

Effective water management goes beyond fixing pipes

water scarcity

Up until yesterday, Cape Town was 129 days away from running out of water. This forecast has now been pushed back to 2019, but let’s take a moment to consider how scary this concept is.

Never mind restrictions like the ones Ireland is enduring now. When the reservoirs all but run dry for everyone, except emergency services and those who can afford private wells, people will have to queue at water distribution points to collect a capped amount of up to 50 litres of water a day. Considering it takes on an average 9 litres to flush a toilet, imagine how restrictive this would be on your day-to-day life. Beside the time spent queuing – with 17,000 people at each distribution point every day – it is not enough to even have a shower. What is even more shocking is that this approach meets UN resolution 64/292 to have safe, clean water accessible to every human within 1km or 30minutes of where they reside. When we talk about water being a human right, this is what we mean – not limitless water delivered to your home 24/7.

One may be forgiven to think that these problems are limited to areas where drought occurs. Unfortunately, it is not just about availability. In Moscow, the city is buckling under the pressure of water demands. Even though Russia has a quarter of the entire world’s fresh water reserve, the majority of water consumed is polluted and does not meet basic sanitary standards. In Ireland, our problem is similar in that is not abundance but ensuring safe and secure drinking water. The situation in Ireland is similar: concerns are over ensuring safe and secure drinking water.

Safe and Secure

These words are critical in water management. They serve as the North Star in every water operators’ mission. It means different things to different people and is based on local challenges. For Ireland, this means that we need to understand the risks that cause water to be polluted and the risks to water being unavailable to customers. The reason the utility-based model is proven to work so well in water management is that the entire organisation is geared around identifying these risks and mitigating them. When water management is one of multiple services delivered by local government, there is competing priorities, often not stemming from what makes water safe and secure.

In order to stack Ireland’s long list of ‘To-Dos’ to fix our water network (never mind a contingency plan for the future), we need to identify the highest risks to this mission of safety and security, and divert spending to mitigating them. To do that, you need data.

Data Drought

In Ireland, we know we have leaks and we know we have pollution. But historically, we didn’t know where, when or why. We relied on local knowledge and while this can be an element of good risk planning, it can’t be the sole source, as it can be biased. Knowing that there used to be fish in a stream and now there isn’t, cannot be the sole reason for committing millions in public money to infrastructure projects. It must be based on empirical data from multiple sources normalised over time. Having a central one-stop shop of this knowledge and data has traditionally been a challenge for water suppliers the world over. Market leaders have proven the value of this approach. They may have been forced to, out of necessity, earlier than the rest, but now that it is becoming more widely felt that water is the number one multiplier of climate change, we must look to them and emulate solutions.

Societal Perceptions

Las Vegas is the world leader – along with the state utility in Israel – in water innovation. They have the lowest leak rate and burst rate measured. At 5%, their loss rate is only a fraction of what we lose in Ireland. They have achieved this through adoption of best-in-class processes and technology to identify, maintain and predict when pipes will leak. But effective water management is not just about fixing pipes. It is also about societal perceptions and pressure. When you couple people’s knowledge, a record of what has previously worked, community engagement and data, then you can better face the challenges that water will throw at us for the next 50 years. For example, their programmes are not just directed towards leak fixing. They also include initiatives such as paying people to remove their grass areas and replace them with desert landscaping.

It is time we have a mature debate in Ireland about water services, which require significant investment, societal engagement and conservation in order for us to survive and thrive. Those throughout the country this week facing restrictions or even resorting to melting snow are getting an insight of what the future holds for us. Cape Town has staved off day zero and is getting one more drink at the bar. But at some point, they will have to face the hangover.