In drought-stricken Europe, leaky pipes are worsening the problem
WATER RESERVOIRS in Spain are usually 63% full by mid-July. This year, levels stand at just 46%. In nearly one-in-five French departements, homeowners are banned from filling their swimming pools. After a warm winter and too little rain, the continent is once again running dry. In March Emmanuel Macron, Frances president, launched a national water-crisis plan, which aims to cut consumption and increase water-recycling. In April Pedro Sanchez, Spains prime minister, listed water as one of the most critical issues facing his country. In many of these places the shortages are made worse by leaks. Countries measure this using different methods, which makes it tricky to collect and compare the data. EurEau, an umbrella group of water suppliers in Europe, measures non-revenue water as a proxy (this includes leaks but also uses such as fire-fighting and street cleaning). By this standard, an average of 25% of Europes water is lost to leaks every year, equivalent to thousands of Olympic-sized pools (see chart). In Britain leaky pipes were highlighted by a financial crisis that engulfed Thames Water, the countrys biggest water company, supplying the south-east. Thames Water loses to leaks nearly 25% of the water it supplies (owing to issues such as old pipes and sudden temperature changes). The countrys average stands only marginally lower, at 23%. That is the equivalent to the water held in over half-a-million Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. Italy is the regions worst offender by volume, losing over three times as much water as Britain does (and 41% of all of its piped water). Ireland and Bulgaria lose more than 50% of their supply. Europes network of water pipes is vast, stretching 4.3m km (roughly 11 times the distance between the Earth and the moon). It can be tough to locate the source of leaks, particularly in rural areas. Some companies are turning to advanced technology to patch them up. Acoustic systems and smart sensors can measure flow and pressure to identify problems almost in real time. Thermal-imaging cameras mounted on drones can pinpoint underground leaks. Water companies have long underinvested in routine maintenance; parts of Europes network of water pipes are over 50 years old. Some governments are now implementing long-term water plans in the hope of matching the success of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, which lose less than 10% of their supply. The downside for consumers is that this will probably lead to higher water bills: the three countries have some of the highest tariffs in Europe.