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Leakage, Shortage, Stress: the Challenges Facing UK Pipeline Networks

Despite coping with such significant demand, the UK’s water network isn’t as secure as it could be. From leaking pipes to increasing water stress and looming shortages, there are a surprising number of risks bearing down on the UK’s water supply – and even the UK’s famously damp weather won’t be able to mitigate the impacts.

To help you understanding these threats, Ant Hire Solutions has investigated the water challenges the UK is facing and how we can work together to safeguard the UK’s pipeline networks and operators.

Climate Change and Water Stress

As greenhouse gas emissions from human activity increase, the world is becoming warmer, altering the climate and causing weather patterns to become far more unpredictable and extreme.

The UK isn’t immune to these changes. According to the Met Office’s fourth State of the UK Climate report, average temperatures between 2008 and 2017 were 0.8°C warmer than the 1961-1990 average, with 6% more sunshine hours. Nine out of the ten warmest years have occurred since 2002, with all ten since 1990.

And while the UK has seen 8% more rain and 20% wetter summers, these increases are being caused by extreme rainfall events as opposed to sustained, low-intensity rainfall. In 2018, the Environment Agency noted since 1910 there had been 18 record-setting rainfall months or seasons, but that nine of these had occurred since 2000. It’s also been explained that intense flood events will become much more frequent - in 2017, the Met Office warned there was now a 1 in 3 chance of a new monthly rainfall record in at least one region every winter.

So, what do these statistics mean for the UK’s water network?

  • Droughts are going to become more frequent and intense, increasing the risk of water shortages.
  • When rains do fall, they will be soaked up by the desiccated ground, instead of forming runoff and replenishing rivers and reservoirs.
  • During extreme rainfall, water won’t have time to rehydrate the ground, causing flooding, pipe blockages, network damage and sewer failure.

Increasing Water Shortages

At the same time as the UK’s water resources become stressed, water consumption is increasing, with UK population is set to increase from 66.9 million in 2019 to 72.5 million in 2039.

What does this mean in terms of water availability? According consultancy HR Wallingford, the UK currently uses over 17 billion litres a day, with supply outpacing demand by around 2 billion litres. This should increase by 2-9% by the 2050s and 4-18% by 2080, though differences will vary hugely between region.

Unable to cope with increasing demand, the UK will increasingly experience water shortages. Under the researchers’ 2015 low population, medium climate change and high population growth and high climate change scenarios:

  • By the 2030s, nearly 30 water resource zones will report deficits of 5 million litres per day
  • By the 2050s, deficits will run to 800-3,200 million litres per day (5-15% of total water demand at that time)
  • By the 2080s, deficits will run to 1,400-6,000 million litres per day (8-29% of total water demand at that time).

And as outlined in the Environment Agency’s headline-hitting announcement in March 2019, the point at which water demand exceeds supply is just 25 years away, and a lot of this is due to the threat posed by leaking pipework.

Leaking Pipe Networks

Water companies are constantly being hit by leaky pipework. According to Water UK statistics, 3.18 billion litres of water were lost to leakage each day in 2017/18, an increase of 60 million litres compared with 2016/17 and equivalent to 1,273 Olympic swimming pools.

The sheer length of the UK’s mains pipe network – 343,865km, or eight and a half trips around the equator – means that these problems are occurring all the time, since pipe leaks occur due to a host of factors:

  • Age-related wear and tear
  • Flooding
  • Freezing weather
  • The weight of traffic
  • Manufacturing defects

While damage is certainly a problem, the defective parts of the network are sometimes the newest.

Ant Hire Solutions PIPE data recorded between March 27th 2018 and March 27th 2019 showed that 16% of new pipelines were shown to leak in pressure tests, 11% of new pipes were found to be in the air content danger zone during pressure tests, and every kilometre of faulty pipeline was seen to have a potential leakage of 1.22 million litres over 35 years. Apply these stats to the network and the following becomes apparent:

  • 55,018.4km of the UK’s mains pipe network is likely to leak if pressure tested.
  • This equates to 67,122 million litres of potential leakage over 35 years.

Reducing the occurrence of leaks is key to reducing the negative effects of climate change and increased water usage but doing so is a constant battle for water companies. According to the Government’s 25 year environmental plan, utilities need to reduce leakage by at least an average of 15% by 2025, further increasing the pressure, and in 2017/18, eight out of the UK’s 18 water companies failed to meet their leakage targets.

How Ant Hire Solutions Helps Detect Leaking pipes

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom for the future of the water network, and there are plenty of ways that pipework can be kept safe from leaks. Safe and compliant pipeline testing gives utilities confidence their pipes aren’t faulty and won’t contribute to water shortages and network inefficiency.

To help contractors and utilities ensure leak-free new networks, we’ve developed a range of guides focusing on pipeline pressure testing. Follow the links below to learn more:

  • What is pipeline pressure testing?
  • How to conduct pipeline pressure tests
  • How to solve problems with pipeline pressure testing and repair
  • Ant Hire Solutions’ 9 steps to leak-free networks

For more information on Ant Hire Solutions’ range of industry-leading pressure testing products and services, please contact our expert team.

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