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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 May 2006, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
What happens to water from leaking pipes?
The Magazine answers...

Hosepipe bans are widespread

Parts of the UK are being told to save water but millions of litres are lost every day through broken and leaking pipes. What happens to it?

Drought orders, hose pipe bans - water has become a big issue in the UK, especially for the estimated 13 million people hit by the restrictions.

But more than 3.5 billion litres of water were lost daily through broken and leaking pipes in England and Wales last year, according to Ofwat.

That's more than a fifth of the 15 billion litres supplied by the UK water system each day and is more than the entire amount of bottled water drunk by Britons in a year. But what happens to it?

Water from leaking pipes will drain downwards to the water table, which is the top layer of saturation in the rock.

It is then extracted again from the ground or taken from springs, which form where aquifers - water-laden rock layers - meet the surface of the ground.

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"The water isn't actually lost from the water cycle, it returns to the water table and will be drawn out again," says Dr Mark Shepherd, of the independent environmental advisory company ADAS.

"When water leaks what is lost is the investment the water companies have put into treating it. When it is drawn out again it will have to be treated again, costing the water companies - and so its customers - more money."

Although only about 2% of water supplied to the home is used for drinking and cooking, it all has to be supplied as "fit for drinking".

Put simply, the process to make it drinkable involves removing solids along with harmful chemicals and nutrients. The stages are:

  • Screening: leaves, twigs and any large debris are removed by screens

  • Clarification: mud and silt are removed using alum and lime

  • Filtration: the last tiny bits of grit and any remaining colour are removed using a sand filter

  • Disinfection: a small amount of the chemical chlorine is added to kill any remaining bacteria

  • PH correction: lime is added to make the water less acidic and less corrosive to metal pipes

    The cost of cleaning water ranges from 42 pence to 1 per 1,000 litres, according to the Environment Agency.

    So the water that leaks daily through broken pipes has already cost between 1,512,000 and 3,600,000 to treat and will cost the same again after going through the water cycle and back to treatment plants.

    There will always be water leaks, because like most other things the water distribution system wears out and suffers damage from its environment, for example from freezing weather and the impact of traffic on the roads. But water companies have also been criticised for not maintaining pipes.

    Water UK, the body representing water companies, says the industry is working hard to replace or repair damaged pipes.

    Every new build home should be fitted with rainwater butts and home owners and local authorities should be ctively encouraged to instal them. I have a 40 gallon water butt which collects water just from a porch roof. On Friday afternoon there was 10 cm of water at the bottom and by Sunday teatime it was brim full.
    Peter Barnard, Buxton

    Surely it would not even cost as much as is wasted to replace much of the old pipes with new , tough, plastic ones? that is unfortunately a disgraceful amount of wastage for a first world leading country in its most basic vital supply.
    adam grace, stockport

    Considering how serious the situation is becoming, is it not now time for the UK to start developing a grey water supply, to run in parallel to the drinkable water supply for use in washing, toilet flushing, plant watering and all the other uses to which we currently put our high quality supply? It would cost billions, but if we will have to do it eventually, we might as well start now, because the cost isn't going to decrease.
    Duncan Hothersall, Edinburgh, Scotland

    Whilst water companies are accountable to shareholders it seems unlikely there will ever be wide scale investment in infrastructure. To help remove our dependancy on piped water in the future the goverment should change new building regulations to force new house to be built with underground storage tanks to store rain water. This would be used for watering the garden or for hot water.
    Darren, St.Albans

    So if I water my plants and wash my car the water will also filter back into the water table and can be recycled. So whats the real issue here, according to the water board my water is not really being wasted! Just costing them more money to process. Which I already pay for as I am on a water meter.
    Alison Martin, London

    So if we are only allowed to use 80% of the 100% of water we have paid for, will the water companies be refunding us the difference ? Lets face it, you wouldnt be expected to pay for a years gas up front and then freeze all winter.
    A Williams, dorset

    Water companies should by law NOT be able to pay their shareholders any dividend until all the leaks are fixed. Customers are simply paying for purified water that is just going to waste.
    roger, sheffield

    Move over waterbutts! I lived in Bermuda for many years where the primary source of water (drinking and otherwise)is rainfall collected off the roof and stored in a tank under the house. It would be very easy to make it mandatory for all new houses to be built with a tank to collect rainwater off the roof. This water could then be be used for most of the household and garden chores, reducing the demand for centralised water supply. With tax refunds for those doing the same in existing properties I'm sure water supply problems can be reduced.
    Michael Harding, Penhurst, UK

    We need to think differently about water we use for human consumption and that used for other purposes. Using drinking water to wash the car or irrigate the garden is a huge waste. These activities result in a large proportion of the water eveporating rather than percolating back into the water table. Store your rainwater, therefore, and use that instead.
    Mark, Redhill, UK

    Why stop at water butts, every new home should have a buried water storage tank, which will store rain and grey water which can then be used to supply toilet cisterns and washing machines, as well as watering the garden.
    Wayne Oldbury, Warrington

    In these drier times the water companies simply have to stop people using the water they have paid for. If not, they are going to be forced into truly radical action, and not pay dividends to shareholders. The private water companies (most owned by foreign compaies, by the way) would far rather inconvenience millions of people that reduce their profits. That's the reality of a privatised water industry.
    Jon Ford, London

    Why don't they link the salary increases and bonuses of the CEO of the individual water companies to the amount of water leakage that his company has each year. I bet that within a two year period, every single leak in the UK would be fixed!
    Angela, Manchester

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