This year’s theme for World Water Day, Accelerating Change, reminds us all of the urgent need to improve provision of clean water and safe sanitation around the world. At WSUP, we believe that combating waste of water and resources is essential if governments, utilities and communities are to speed up their journey towards water, sanitation & hygiene services for all. Reducing high rates of non-revenue water – from leakage to water not paid for – is a must.

This year’s World Water Day, on the 22nd of March, is accompanied by a three-day UN 2023 Water Conference, in New York, the first major United Nations water event in half a century.  The focus is timely, as the world struggles to fulfill the stated goal of reaching universal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030. According to the UN, based on the 2020 rates of progress, “1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion people will lack safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion people will lack basic hand hygiene facilities in 2030”.

The 2023 World Water Week campaign

Therefore, time is of the essence, and non-revenue water (NRW) is a major hurdle on the path for change. This is why many of the WSUP projects in Africa and Asia have been focusing on reducing its rates, as is the case of the recently signed three-year partnership with the Pictet Group Foundation and Zambia’s Southern Water and Sanitation Company (SWSC) to improve water security in Livingstone, southern Zambia.

The project aims to better protect water resources “by strengthening the capacity of the utility to tackle high rates of water lost from the system (…) caused by leaks in the network and non-payment for water used”. Having started in November 2022, the Livingstone project will adopt several initiatives to combat NRW, such as “repairing the infrastructure, using smart technology to monitor and manage water pressure in the system, improving metering, billing accuracy and collection”. Increasing the local utility’s capacity is also paramount, with the training of staff so they can better detect and address leaks in the system.

SWSC’s work setting up household connections in Livingstone is often hindered by high rates of non-revenue water (Photo: Steve Metcalfe)

How to fight waste

Non-revenue water means any water produced by the system that ends up being thrown away without being consumed or is consumed without being recorded and paid for. A guide produced by WSUP a few years ago defined it as “the difference between the amount of water a utility puts into the distribution system and the amount of water billed to consumers”. In other words, it is a very significant loss to the system, meaning a loss to the utility, the local government, and all communities involved.

For the business of a water utility, NRW is a key indicator of its performance, both operational and financial. For the global struggle to achieve SDG6, it means a barrier for levels of water coverage to improve and communities to access both water and sanitation services.

“Non-revenue water is one of the most important numbers that reflect how the water utility is effective at using its water”, explains Rosemary Campbell, WSUP’s Head of Water. “Does all the water taken from a source – which can be a river, a reservoir or a well or borehole drilled deep into an aquifer – reach the customer? Is all the water received by the customers paid for? If the answer to either of these is no, then there is a loss of both the water and revenue.  This measure is what is termed the percentage NRW.”

More on non-revenue water

Digital technology has become a crucial tool for JIRAMA’s team in charge of reducing NRW in Madagascar (Photo: Tsilavo Rapiera)

Fighting high levels of non-revenue water is quite often a difficult task, as in many cases utilities are not aware of the nature of the issues affecting their networks. “It’s all underground, out of sight and out of mind, so it’s difficult to understand what is happening”, says Rosemary.

Finding solutions involves different approaches and actions, from improving infrastructure and materials to adopting digital technology, as the WSUP’s Head of Water explains. “Nowadays it is possible to put in monitoring equipment, which WSUP has been pioneering in pilot areas with three utilities, JIRAMA in Madagascar, Fipag in Beira [Mozambique], and LWSC in Lusaka [Zambia].  This is helping to see the unseen and identify when more water is being used than paid for”, says Rosemary. “It is a constant battle and always will be.”

A massive problem

Although estimates of NRW vary, the problem is clearly more serious in developing countries, including Sub-Saharan Africa, where water losses are found to be around 40% of the total water produced. In rich nations, that rate tends to be much lower, at around 20%, but some poorer countries and regions may record losses of up t0 80%. The World Bank recommends that the figure should be kept at below 25% of all water produced.

Using many of the available tools, the NRW rate has been reduced significantly in the area served by DWASA (Dhaka Water Supply And Sewerage Authority), operating in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. “A decade ago, DWASA was known neither for their efficiency nor their profitability, and the key officials believe that NRW was one of the key reasons behind that problem”, says Pritum Saha, WSUP’s Data & Impact Officer, based in Dhaka.

JIRAMA’s team in action fixing leaks that technology helped them spot (Photo: Tsilavo Rapiera)

With an NRW rate of around 40% a decade ago, according to the utility this has dropped continuously until reaching the current 5%. DWASA has improved its performance by adopting several measures, as part of the work done with support from WSUP, of which the most important was formalising the services to low-income communities (LICs). “Supporting DWASA to establish, capacitate and operate the LIC unit was one of the most significant works WSUP did with the utility.”

Before the LIC unit was set up, residents of low-income areas paid higher prices for water to irregular local vendors or people who stole water from DWASA, whilst the utility got no revenue for that service. “WSUP helped residents learn about positive benefits of getting a water meter, form community-based organisations to stop NRW vendors, construct water networks inside their settlements etc”, says Pritum. At the same time, WSUP supported DWASA to form the LIC unit, develop its capacity, and market their offering to LIC customers, amongst other tasks.

Where is the leak?

While formalising services to communities that were not paying for water is a enormous gain for the system, another regular and vital effort to reduce non-revenue water is going after leakages. Monitoring equipment, using sophisticated technologies, has become essential for the arduous job of fixing leaks, which ultimately involves some engineering work.

In Madagascar, JIRAMA has been using both new technologies and specific teams that identify and fix points where water that could be consumed and paid for is being released to the ground. It is a constant and costly effort, but still a much faster way of improving the service than just producing even more water – just for it to be lost at the same high rate.

When we consider the growing needs of urban vulnerable communities, when climate events increasingly affect water availability, cutting losses is a mission that cannot be avoided, as Rosemary Campbell reminds us. “In the ever increasing challenge of climate change, it is far better to reduce NRW to ensure everyone receives water and no further resources are needed.”

Top image: water pipe in Madagascar with a leak.