Water Networks are around for a while: Babylonia and Ur already featured them. Yet, when is the last time you’ve met one? Chances are, it’s whether a while ago or… never!

We’ve designed our water infrastructure on purpose to be invisible, and this has consequences: let’s review ⬇️

(This deep dive is part of my global focus on all the pillars of the Water Industry!)

The Unknown Water Networks

OK, I know what you mean; how are Water Networks actually unknown for water professionals?

Well, first because none of us is actually old enough to fully know them, and then because we have to acknowledge our starting point in many places around the world, as Alex Loucopoulos and Olivier Narbey recall.

We all know there’s a million and a half miles of pipes in the us. They’re all old. Some of them are from 200 years ago! In Europe, you have the same issue.

Alexander Loucopoulos – Partner at SCIENS WATER

In some countries, you start with a level of service that is 2, 3, 4 hours of water supply every other day. And you need to bring that up to a constant water supply, or at least a daily water supply.

Olivier Narbey – Global Business Development Manager at GF PIPING SYSTEMS

How do we improve from there?

Rapid Urbanization is a Challenge

That’s the question Aaron Tartakovsky raises, underlining that it is difficult to expect different results if we just keep doing the same thing!

If we take a look at how we design our cities today, when it comes to Water and wastewater, we really haven’t changed much in about 200 years. We are almost solely reliant on the centralized model of large facilities and large networks of underground pipes.

Aaron Tartakovsky – CEO & Co-Founder of EPIC CLEANTEC

Would you like to learn more about the challenges that urbanization poses for Water Networks? I’ve prepared you a deeper dive here!

The Difficult Financial Equation of Water Networks

The reason why we let those underground pipes reach venerable ages isn’t exactly what I would call a policy. It is rather the consequence of a very straightforward budget rule.

You have a very limited budget compared to what is at stake. You’re only playing with little millions here and there, and you need to know where to focus your effort. You have budget to renew 0.2 to 0.5% of your network every year. It means an average theoretical lifetime of 200 years for your system. So way too long for any pipe material, any piping system!

Olivier Narbey

There is a direct correlation between how much you care about something, and how much you value it.

And that is a direct problem, when it comes to Water and Wastewater Networks:

We have very literally created infrastructure that is out of sight out of mind. So we are trained to not ever have to think about these things. When we flush the toilet, we don’t think about what happens next. And when we turn on a tap, we assume Water’s going to come out.

Aaron Tartakovsky – CEO & Co-Founder of EPIC CLEANTEC
Shall we reinvent our Water Networks?

A lack of political focus

If our networks are out of sight, they are also out of focus and down on any kind of political agenda. Which leads to the undersized budget Olivier alluded to.

And? What’s the problem? After all, the sewer network of the Knossos Palace is still functional, 5’000 years later, so what’s some hundreds of years on our modern networks?

Your old water network might behave… differently 😅

Well, the thing is that our networks tend to simply no longer succeed on their primary mission: conveying Water or Wastewater between their ends.

There are a huge amount of Water that are lost every year! The latest I had in mind, it’s 126 trillion cubic meter of water loss per year. That is worth a lot of money. Characterizing that amount really depends on where you are. Some countries, you know, when they face water scarcity, they’re not trying to fix leaks.

They don’t have time to fix leaks. They just go for new infrastructure! Over the past 30, 40 years, this is what you see most of the time that especially large municipalities, they go for more water resources. As long as they have the cash to pay for those extra infrastructure. So a desalination plant, a new plant, a new dam, reservoirs… What is at stake in terms of money is actually, I think, much more than $40 billion.

Olivier Narbey

Letting your Water Network leak is a financial miscalculation

What Olivier points out here is very interesting – and little heard honestly. We always look at the price tag associated with Non-Revenue Water. How much could we have billed a cubic meter of that Water, multiplied by the amount that leaks out?

But we rarely take the time to zoom out and to look at the debatable solutions many apply to that problem. Because indeed, this Water that leaks ends up missing on our Water Balance. But instead of fixing the leakage issue, we sometimes go for the simplified answer of producing more Water. Which still leaks at the same percentage through the network and increases the long-term bill—kind of devil’s circle or a way to fail forward.

Now, why don’t we fix the problem instead?

It’s not “Problem” but “ProblemS”

We’re talking of many issues scattered across a huge infrastructure.

We have hundreds of kilometers, maybe thousands of kilometers of water mains, but a lot of it, we have no idea what’s actually happening on them!

Luke Butler – Director of Innovation at QATIUM

Brian Moloney and David Lloyd Owen have very visual metaphors to share, for us to reckon the size of the challenge:

Could you imagine driving into your city tonight if there was no traffic lights anywhere? it would be chaos! Everybody wouldn’t know what junction to move and how to travel around. That’s what the drainage networks are below our city at the moment.

Brian Moloney – CEO & Founder of STORMHARVESTER

I was so horrified of the poor quality of information out there! As one consultancy when reviewing all the estimates for the millennium development goals put it; it looks like most of these were done on the back of an envelope!

David Lloyd Owen – Author of GLOBAL WATER FUNDING

Gathering the right data about your Water Infrastructure

But if you don’t have the right information about your underground networks, it suddenly gets much harder to fix it.

It’s not easy to improve a water system. There are many things you need to understand and consider. The key thing you see in all systems that are poorly performing is the limited knowledge people have of these systems.

Olivier Narbey
How well do you know your Water Network?

And more often than you think, that limited knowledge is even inaccurate:

The old pipes that were replaced 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Can we make sure they’re out of service? The history of a piping system is such that a lot of the issues come from the pipes that you think you had disconnected, but somehow somewhere, someone left a valve open. Okay, it was closed on the day of the decommissioning, but he thought it was a good idea to keep that valve just in case for some reason, one day that valve was open and now remains open forever.

So you thought you had decommissioned 30 kilometers of leaking pipeline, but they’re actually still in operation.

Olivier Narbey

Document whenever you get a chance!

Which leads to a very practical recommendation:

Whenever you have the chance to physically touch and see your piping system. You need to capitalize that information into your mapping.

Olivier Narbey
A Network operator or manager sometimes has to become a water detective!

The good news is that those systems, be they geographical, maps, models, or databases, tend to improve and get more and more powerful, something we’ll inevitably cover in our deep dive on digitization.

But as powerful as the tools may become, they need to be fed with the right data. Starting to gather it today will enable a full new level of network management:

They need to start replacing this or prioritizing where they replace led. It’s going to the vulnerable populations first. What’s the demographic of that location. Are there any pregnant or seeing children in the home, are there other vulnerable characteristics where you may want to prioritize that area of your community over another, in terms of replacement of the pipes?

Megan Glover – CEO & Founder of 120WATER

It is only science fiction if you don’t try, right?

Now let’s look at some additional water network questions ⬇️

Will Bottle Water Take Over Utility Water?

At today’s pace, the world will invest more in Bottled Water than it does in Utility Water in 2034.

This may be a consequence of strong marketing of Bottling Water companies (especially Perrier), but also a consequence of the Utilities’ difficulty to fulfill the UN SDG6.

Check my deep dive here, to discover the full story – and what may be an alternative to both Tap Water and Bottled Water.

Are Water Tariffs too Low?

Setting a price for Water is always tricky.

Shall it be free, as Water is a common natural good?

Well, water treatment, pumping, management, and services are a bit “less” natural – hence have some costs that shall be covered.

So, instead, it shall be affordable.

But what is affordability? How do you define it? And in a counter-intuitive fashion, may higher water tariffs be the key to more affordable water in the long run?

I’ll explore all of this in this deep dive!