Down the drain – how water leakage affects us and what we can do about it

Water wastageAccording to World Wildlife Fund South Africa’s (WWF-SA) 2016 report titled Water: Facts and Futures… Rethinking South Africa’s Water Future, as much as “37% of water in our urban piped water systems leaks out or is used illegally”. That’s more than a third of our country’s water, going down the drain – and I believe that this number is conservative.

With the water crisis in the Cape, looming water concerns across the world, and a growing population, this figure remains far too high. What effect does it have on us as individuals, communities, and businesses? What is being done? How can we make a difference?

Impact of water waste

As can be expected, the waste of almost 40% of South Africa’s water exerts a significant impact on the entire national population. Here are some of the major costs:

  1. Financial

The financial costs of water leakage are in the billions. And we all feel it as: individuals, communities, businesses, municipalities, and participants in the broader economy. This is not just because we’re all paying for water that we don’t use, but because water loss results in bigger burdens, like higher water tariffs and water restrictions.

  1. Socio-economic

Water leaks cost municipalities billions in lost revenue; money that could have been better invested in community upliftment, reticulation, and service delivery. Further, water wastage results in water metering and billing for communities that, in the past, enjoyed free water.

  1. Environmental

As the 30th driest country on the planet, South Africa has a water leakage problem that impacts significantly on the environment. Water is a scarce resource and, as the human population grows, more pressure falls on water resources, agriculture, and local ecosystems.

What’s being done

There’s been some progress on addressing leakage in parts of the country, especially given the water crisis in the Western Cape. With an increase in general awareness about water management, many of the major metros now have contact centres for reporting water leaks.

Smart water metering, although early in its adoption, has also begun to provide better data on leak detection. This allows service providers to respond faster when problems arise.

Government to-dos

To adequately address the crisis, government must proactively maintain our reticulation systems. This should start with proper funding allocated to the water and sanitation departments, for maintenance projects, skills upliftment, education and training.

Further, I believe that all municipalities should be given a non-revenue-water-loss target – we should be aiming for 30% initially and 20% longer-term, at a minimum. 

What individuals can do

Government may have a big role to fill in addressing water leakage, but it’s important to remember that leaks can occur anywhere in the reticulation system – including end-points like toilets and taps. So we all play a part in the problem. Apart from finding and fixing leaks in our private homes, offices, and businesses, here’s what else we can do:


  • Implement smart metering to give alerts when leaks occur.
  • Track water usage using an app and set water usage targets.
  • Shower instead of bath.


  • Educate children about the importance of conserving and managing water.
  • Respect free water; it’s not something to throw away.
  • Report water leaks as soon as you see them.

Residents’ associations

  • Track and manage water at the bulk supply level and report this back to residents to create awareness about water consumption.
  • Implement a smart metering solution to give alerts when water consumption exceeds thresholds or leaks are detected.

Opportunity in crisis

According to GreenCape’s 2017 Market Intelligence Report on water, “South Africa’s water infrastructure and resources are valued at a replacement value of around R1.3 trillion, while the average investment required over the next decade is R855 billion.” This opens up significant business opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.

For instance, in the months and years to come:

  • Demand for plumbers and reticulation engineers will increase.
  • Smart metering will become more important as we move towards smart cities.
  • New and innovative ways of managing and saving water (smart taps, toilets, urinals etc.) will become more important.
  • Any business related to the conservation and management of water resources, especially if innovative, will be well positioned to thrive.

We’ve known for years that a water crisis was coming. With our poor national infrastructure and global warming on the rise, it’s likely that this is only the beginning. But with some initiative and a bit of forward planning, we may be able to lessen the burden of leakage.

AUTHOR: Darren Oxlee, Chief Technical Officer at Utility Systems

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