Bigger incentives needed to fix our leaking infrastructure

As we head towards the election, tackling our long term under-investment in water infrastructure needs to remain a key focus.

Recently updated water loss guidelines have been developed to help councils tackle their leaking infrastructure. Water New Zealand chief executive Gillian Blythe says cutting our excessive level of water wastage will become a vital tool in ensuring a sustainable water future.

The amount of water lost in water networks in Aotearoa New Zealand is eye-watering. More than the combined volume of water supplied to Wellington and Christchurch’s networks is lost in council water pipes on the way to its end use. Roughly one bucket of water is lost for every five that enter the networks.

This is only half of the story. It’s estimated that losses in private household pipes are often equivalent to the water lost on the council side. For example, reported estimates from Wellington Water show that Wellington City’s total water loss is 41 percent while Upper Hutt City’s reaches 52 percent.

Recognising the case for change, water experts around New Zealand have joined forces to update the guidelines for councils to reduce their water loss. A particular challenge when roughly only half of the country’s networks have meters.

You can’t manage what you cannot measure. Without a good understanding of how much water is being used in people’s homes and businesses it is difficult to make accurate assessments of how much water is being wasted, and importantly, where to target efforts.

With losses occurring in pipes buried far below ground, identification and rehabilitation of water leaks can be a costly business.

International experts have estimated the total costs of repairing our long term water infrastructure deficit could be as high as $120 to $185 billion over the next thirty years.

The flip side to this is that without leak repair, the ongoing operational and environmental costs begin to mount. Finding new water sources, and treating and distributing drinking water costs money, regardless of whether it is sent to an end user or leaks out on the way.

As well as leakage into the ground, worsening summer droughts caused by climate change will continue to result in less water returned to lakes and rivers. This leads to increased algal blooms and loss of aquatic habitat – also indicative of a wider picture where not enough priority or value is placed on the health and wellbeing of water.

The challenge water suppliers face in addressing leakage is in justifying the investment needed for investigations and repair. While changes have been made to resource management legislation, and an economic regulator of water services established, both will need to be carefully implemented if they are to meaningfully drive down our water losses.

With climate change expected to increase the length and intensity of droughts it is vital we take steps to shore up our water supplies. The Aotearoa New Zealand national climate change risk assessment ranked potable water supplies as our country’s most urgent climate risk.

Reducing water loss is a no regrets way to improve our resilience against drought. Reducing water losses avoids the need to build costly infrastructure, which in turn, further drives up emissions contributing to climate change.

With NIWA’s seasonal outlook signaling El Nino conditions, bringing above average chance of dry weather in the east and across much of the North Island, it is timely we start considering what steps we can all take to play our part to get through a potentially dry summer.

Householders have a role to play. If you are in a region with water meters, monitor your bills for unusual spikes in usage or gradual increases that could signal a water leak. If your meter still moves when you’re not using water, it is likely you have a leak.

All homeowners can regularly inspect for leaks, by keeping an eye out for dripping faucets, toilet cisterns, and keeping an eye out for pooling in the yard. Ensure hoses and irrigation systems are properly connected, do not leak and are turned off when not in use.

It’s clear that our water security future is a national debate. Long term certainty hinges on decisions we are make now, including the incentives to invest in infrastructure. Water suppliers will need certainty about the operating environment to help unlock the investment needed to tackle these challenging issues.

The Waterloss guidelines are available from the Water New Zealand website at The guide’s development was initiated by Water New Zealand’s Water Conservation Action Network, funded by the Water Service Managers Group and delivered by a consortium of consultants – Thomas Consultants Ltd as lead consultant (Richard Taylor), Water Cycle Consulting (Christine McCormack), BECA (Jon Reed), WSP (Dan Johnson) and Water Loss Research & Analysis Ltd (Allan Lambert).