This World Water Day as we ponder why precious groundwater is suffering the same fate as our lakes and rivers, FIDO CEO Victoria Edwards asks whether plundering even more of this invisible resource is right when we’re already leaking so much. Is leakage the elephant in the room?
Water is essential for all life on earth.
Few of us need reminding of that fact. Certainly not Vladimir Putin, whose withholding of water to besieged Ukrainian cities shows he understands it acutely.
But today’s UN World Water Day is not necessarily aimed at the likes of us. One of its important roles is to prod policymakers who are at risk of being asleep at the wheel as the planet veers towards a water-led disaster.
This year’s WWD theme is groundwater. Groundwater is the water which runs through underground aquifers and get re-filled by rain and snow filtering through soils.
According to the UN, almost all the liquid freshwater in the world is groundwater. We just can’t see it, and don’t really measure it.
It’s mind-blowing and wonderful to imagine the huge transboundary water flows running beneath our feet. In some places it’s a potential resource – albeit one that needs drilling and pumping to get at.
Unfortunately, the story of groundwater is much like that of our above ground rivers and lakes. It’s being polluted and over-used.
But this is where, for me, I begin to lose heart.
Groundwater is not the only invisible water resource
Everything in the UN’s latest World Water Development Report on groundwater makes absolute sense except … except, the failure to state the obvious.
Surely one of the best ways to protect groundwater from over-abstraction and avoid the need for additional expensive drilling and pumping is to look to the other massive underground, invisible water resource that’s just waiting for us.
I’m talking about water that is already abstracted and that is already largely treated. In fact, it’s already halfway or more on its journey to our taps.
I’m talking about leakage. Or to put it another way; the 30 per cent of water that gets sourced, treated, and pumped at great expense but just seeps away before it reaches the people who need it.
It’s always confounding to me that tackling leakage gets so little mention in the reams and reams of virtual and actual reports that have been written about water resilience, water scarcity and climate change. It barely featured at COP26 and only gets passing mentions in the latest two World Water Development Reports.
In fairness, UNESCO did once call reducing leakage a low- or no-regrets climate change intervention – acknowledging that it takes a lot of power to deliver drinking water and that fixing leakage cuts carbon and saves water in one fell swoop.
Why be so muted? Is it because the accepted wisdom of water utilities has been that it’s too hard. More than 90% of leaks never shows above ground, they argue. Most leaks are so small they’re below the level of economic repair, they say.
But it was guesswork. If you don’t know where the leaks are, how on earth can you know how big they are.
We can solve leakage
I don’t accept the argument that leakage is unavoidable, because the technology now exists to find that water and to work out where most of it is being lost.
One of the reasons countries get away with staggering levels of leakage is that, like ground water, they don’t measure it. In this the UK is something of a world leader, which is why some of the best leakage technologies are emerging from here.
In the US, there are signs that this is changing. In the EU too, member states have been told to find out how much their systems leak. But in both cases it’s too little too late.
The time spent installing meters so you can count the water you’re losing in order to set up regulatory regimes which will only then apply pressure on ‘economic levels of leakage’, we could already be solving the problem.
Artificial intelligence finds all your leaks, tells you which are your biggest and exactly where. Just do it now.
There may never be zero leakage, because new leaks will always appear. It might always be a constant battle. But it is a constant battle that we can win with the help of technology.
We need to eradicate global water scarcity and insecurity for the sake of people, communities, societies, civilisations … even species.
Leakage is a huge untapped water resource. Let’s reclaim it before the next World Water Day.