News Feature | September 20, 2013

The $14 Billion Problem: Non-Revenue Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Industry experts have known for years that water produced and lost by utilities, known as "non-revenue water," is becoming an increasingly costly problem all over the world. 

The numbers back them up. The World Bank says the price tag on non-revenue water, globally, is close to $14 billion each year, Forbes recently reported. And the average U.S. water utility based in a city "loses up to 30 percent through leaks or un-billed usage." 

A thriving market for technology solutions has cropped up. Emerging markets will invest $46.5 billion by 2023 on technology aimed at improving the management of water resources, Forbes said. "That money will go toward smart water meters, water networks, precision agriculture and irrigation systems," among other solutions. 

Not all the fixes consist of tweaking the physical infrastructure. Software is one of the most important solutions, experts note. For instance, IBM says it offers software to "help utilities manage pressure, detect leaks, reduce water consumption, mitigate sewer overflow, and better manage their water infrastructure, assets and operations."

Southbend, IN tried out IBM's cloud technology to manage its aging sewer system, officials said in a video compiled by the company. 

Officials were seeking a way to "optimize the conveyance, the storage, and the performance of the 500 miles of deep sewers we have already invested in to get more out of those pipes. How can we get more out of those before we spend more money to get new pipes, better pipes?" said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend. 

South Bend has more sensors on its sewer system than anywhere in the world, officials said. It uses IBM's cloud software to analyze data from the sensors. 

City Controller Mark Neal said that adding the software, even without enhancing South Bend's infrastructure, has allowed South Bend "to use an additional 10,000 miles a day of capacity. That translates to roughly 100 million dollars in savings for us." 

Non-revenue water is a complex problem that policymakers often overlook, according to The Barbados Advocate, and the answer is rarely ever as simple as fixing the pipes. 

"Non-revenue water does not necessarily mean leakage," the outlet said. Engineers told The Advocate that "water used for fire fighting is also non-revenue water as well as water that comes from standpipes."

One engineer explained that a statistic showing that a city has 49 percent non-revenue water "does not mean that the leakage rate is 49 percent."