How water leaks are eroding household and district budgets


South Africa, as a developing country that nonetheless leverages several first-world technologies, offers an interesting case study when it comes to water.

In this article, Marcus Lee Thulsidas, business development director at South Africa-headquartered Utility Systems, offers insights into the effect of water leaks on individual households and district (municipal) budgets.

This article first appeared in Smart Energy International Issue 4-2019. 
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SA’s water stress

South Africa is a water-stressed country. In 2013, a water stress survey placed South Africa in 65th position out of 180 countries. Yet by 2040 the water stress index is likely to rise to anything between 40% and 80%.

As with many other developing countries, rapid urbanisation is placing huge pressure on existing water infrastructure and supply systems – the majority of which are ageing and in desperate need of upgrades.

Reports indicate that by 2035 water demand is expected to exceed supply by 10%. If planned water schemes aren’t carried out, South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies estimates that this gap could increase to 21%.

In short, South Africa has a looming water crisis on its hands – one that is indicative of similar challenges in other developing countries.

Public enemy no. 1: silent leaks

There can be no doubt that, at both the national and district level, immediate action has to be taken to tackle water scarcity and water mismanagement.

Within households and businesses, however, the conventional approach to water has to change radically – beginning with devoting rigorous attention to potential water leaks.

Detecting small and large leaks will ultimately save water (and other critical resources), and it will also reduce water bills (sometimes dramatically). Indeed, making key changes to water management can reduce household bills and ease the economic strain on homes and businesses of all sizes.

So, where to begin?

Detection and calculation

The first step, advises Allan Swanepoel, national sales manager of Precision Meters (based in South Africa), is to identify where possible leaks could be occurring.

Toilets are common culprits – and expensive ones at that. To illustrate, a silent toilet leak can be leaking from 75 litres to as much as 150 litres a day (or 4,500 litres a month). Simply multiply that by the cost of water in your area, and you will get an idea of how much you can save on just a small repair cost.

To illustrate, at the lowest Johannesburg water tariff of 50 US cents per litre, that equates to $2,50/month or $28/year; at the highest tariff of $3/l that equates to $14/month or $180/year!

That is an easy win, and fairly simple to detect. Now we get to pipe leaks below ground – which are much harder to find (and devastating on the budget). Such a leak can go unnoticed for days, months or even years.

The financial impact will depend on the size of the hole and the water pressure.

Swanepoel runs through a few different scenarios:

Take a hole of 0,5 mm and pressure of 5 bar, applying the same tariff calculation as above. At the highest rate, that small hole is costing the household $522 per year, and running the calculation for larger holes produces startling results.

Furthermore, imagine if these types of volumes are multiplied across urban areas – the results would demonstrate the massive impact on the cost of supply purification and reticulation … bearing in mind that South Africa is a water-stressed country.

While these figures are not cast in stone and would vary depending on circumstance and areas, the numbers undoubtedly provide a valuable indication of the dramatic implications of undetected water leaks.

Education is paramount

With a fast approaching water crisis on the horizon, it must be emphasized that water leaks are only one part of the water saving equation. Today, excessive water consumption and careless daily routines involving water usage contribute to water scarcity and expensive water bills.

To tackle water wastage in a meaningful and sustainable way, individuals must take responsibility for reducing daily water consumption. This means that within both households and businesses a radical change of approach is required: one where water is treated as a highly valuable and increasingly threatened resource. SEI


Marcus Thulsidas is the Business Development Director of Utility Systems, a smart water management solutions company. He played a fundamental role in the development of the first commercially available Standard Transfer Specification (STS) Association approved prepayment water management device in 2011.