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Last week Sir James Bevan, the CEO of the Environment Agency, warned that England could run short of water within 25 years. He cited rising population and the risk of declining supplies due to climate change in a dilemma he dubbed the ‘‘jaws of death”.

In order to avert this crisis Bevan suggested a number of potential remedies that represent a major challenge to the water industry and regulators alike. Chief among these solutions was a call to reduce leakage from water company pipes by 50%.

This would be a massive task for the water industry. Ofwat has already set targets to cut leakage by 15% by 2020, although a recent report from the regulator revealed that nine of the 20 water suppliers missed their leakage targets in 2017/18. In England and Wales, 3.3 billion litres of water are lost through leakages in delivery networks every day.

The challenge will be amplified as Bevan also identified a need for more water to be transferred across the country to water-stressed areas, such as the south-east. This would of course involve the deployment of new pipelines – heightening the potential for more leaks.

Leak detection, water pipes, Fotech, pipeline monitoring, water pipe leaks

If we are to address the alarm that Bevan has sounded, then significant remedial action is required. The question is, what can be done to minimise and avert leak incidents?

The digitalisation our water infrastructure with smart monitoring technologies, such as distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), is vital if we are to achieve any reduction in water leaks and help avert this pending crisis.

By harnessing fibre optic cables alongside water pipelines, DAS creates a vast ecosystem of acoustic and vibration sensors, each listening, 24/7, for the distinct signatures which are characteristic of leaks and the issues which threaten the integrity of a pipeline. With this, water providers can gain visibility of their entire water pipeline network’s integrity – whether a few hundred kilometres in length or hundreds of thousands of kilometres – all in real time.

DAS can identify and characterise a range of acoustic and temperature information generated by a leak event. And, when combined with sophisticated artificial intelligence systems and edge computing, that information can be distilled into high-confidence, real-time alerts – allowing operators to effectively and rapidly target their actions.

Leak detection, water pipes, Fotech, pipeline monitoring, water pipe leaks

Indeed, during real-world testing, our DAS pipeline monitoring solution, LivePIPE, successfully pinpointed leak events to within a 10-meter radius and alert operators within the time it took for just 30 litres of water to spill from the pipeline. In this way DAS gives operators the reliable and actionable information they need to respond as quickly as possible.

Climate change and population growth are issues that countries all around the world are facing – and water supplies will be among the hardest hit infrastructure as a result of both factors. The fact that the Environment Agency has sounded the alarm in the UK should not be seen as an isolated case.

However, Sir James has outlined a thought-provoking response to these challenges. Crucially, his fundamental point is that water leak rates simply cannot be allowed to carry on as they are – and it is difficult to argue with that contention.

If we are to meet that challenge then the digitisation of our water networks with DAS is an absolute necessity for water agencies to effectively monitor their pipeline networks and to detect, locate and prevent leaks.