The underlying causes of non-revenue water losses and why it is important

By Simon Ross, IWCAN

In an interview, Will Spitzenberg, the Chief Water Engineer of ASPA in American Samoa, discussed the problem of non-revenue water (NRW) losses of up to 60% in the small island nation. This article unpacks this problem, which is particularly troublesome in developing regions, where an estimated 45 million m3 of water is pumped but then ‘lost’ through leaks, illegal connections, or other inefficiencies.

In developing countries, this loss represents an economic value of US$3 billion per annum, which is equivalent to providing water to an additional 180 million people. While performance benchmarking for water utilities is unlikely to attract a celebrity endorsement, Will suggests that it is a growing area that developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region will increasingly need help with and has important sustainability and equity considerations. With this in mind, it is important to reflect on how these issues can best be ‘championed’.

The need for local capacity to detect and respond to non-revenue water losses

NRW losses are the difference between water that is pumped by public utilities and what is distributed, used and paid for. These values are different for a number of reasons:

  • Piping infrastructure is expensive to maintain and replace.
  • Illegal connections and unreported leaks.
  • Poor information and management systems.

Will mentioned in his Kini interview, that as a general rule, well-performing water utilities might lose around 20% of their water to non-revenue streams, but in American Samoa and the Pacific, this figure can be up to 60%, or even higher, which is exacerbated by limited maintenance budgets and poor institutional capacity. For example, in the interview, he also described the scenario of finding ‘two hundred gallons per minute leaks that did not surface and just poured into the lava rock, in parts of the piped water network in American Samoa. The reality is that these issues need patience, as they take time to resolve.

The scale of investment required to address these problems is very large in American Samoa and includes:

  • Human resource development for local leak detection teams;
  • Investment in automated metering and real-time monitoring equipment; and
  • Developing a systematic approach to reducing NRW losses.

These losses reduce the revenue but not the costs of the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA), a combined power and water utility. Inefficiencies in water resource management significantly affect ASPA, who is reliant on increasing rates for local residents, loans or federal grants for the ultimate goal of financing the replacement of US$100 million worth of aging pipes and expanding access to the water supply.

‘Benchmarking’ is the way to drive local demand for change and share results

There is a strong need for efficient, incremental improvements to water supply systems driven by quality information. Benchmarking tools such as the AWWA water balance spreadsheet can provide motivation to address these problems and enable knowledge sharing.

Will Spitzenberg refers to the importance of targeted long-term efforts by dedicated local teams as being essential to the process of improving high NRW losses.

“Really good baseline information to map the results is important to understand where to allocate resources. When results are achieved and more money comes in, problems can begin to be addressed. It is not something that someone can walk in, solve, and walk away”

A 2017 benchmarking summary from the Pacific Water and Wastewater Authority highlights the benefits of learning together through benchmarking activities to deal with the challenging issues of:

  • Attracting resource-poor customers to pay for their water supply
  • Replacing aging infrastructure
  • Recovering operating costs and attracting donors
  • Setting equitable tariff structures

Sustainability and equality are the real reasons for addressing non-revenue water losses.

Will’s message becomes more evident when reflecting on these challenges and this helps us understand the type of role needed to be filled by an NRW ‘champion’ to maintain improved sustainable and equitable access to water. NRW problems are symptomatic of how some functions of water management have traditionally been under-resourced with low recognition and why this should change.

Technical professionals are required who also understand the social relationships required to change behaviour for:

  • maintaining existing infrastructure;
  • promoting co-operation and shared benefits;
  • negotiating the equitable and targeted distribution of scarce resources; and
  • communicating effectively to respond to priority needs.

Benchmarking supported by accurate and transparent information should be used to learn about where NRW losses are occurring as well as their underlying causes and potential solutions. Most important is knowing how to respond collaboratively:

“Just producing more water is not the best solution. When water is being lost, saving water is much better than developing new infrastructure” Will Spitzenberg, Chief Water Engineer, American Samoa Power Authority

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