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Buildings and Cities

Water Distribution

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Pumping water from source to treatment plant to storage and distribution requires enormous amounts of energy. Utilities use the phrase “non-revenue water” to describe the gap between what goes into a municipal water system and what ultimately comes out the tap. The World Bank calculates that 8.6 trillion gallons are lost each year through leaks, split roughly in half between high- and low-income countries.

Producing billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity to pump water through breaks in the world’s water-distribution networks—rather than into homes or businesses—is expensive. It also produces unnecessary emissions. By minimizing leaks and losses, both energy and water are saved.

Improving the efficiency of water distribution largely depends on management practices. The torrential bursts that cut off service and submerge streets are not actually the worst from a waste perspective: They demand attention and immediate remediation. The bigger problem is with smaller, long-running leaks that are less detectable. Vigilant, thorough detection and speed to resolution are key.

Addressing leaks requires financial investment, but doing so is the cheapest way to source new supply and serve growing urban populations. Those same practices make municipal water systems more resilient to water shortages.


Pumping [water]…enormous amounts of energy: Pabi, S., A. Amarnath, R. Goldstein, and L, Reekie. Electricity Use and Management in the Municipal Water Supply and Wastewater Industries. Palo Alto: Electric Power Research Institute, 2013.

8.6 trillion gallons…lost [to] leaks: Kingdom, Bill, Roland Liemberger, and Philippe Marin. The Challenge of Reducing Non-Revenue Water (NRW) in Developing Countries. How the Private Sector Can Help: A Look at Performance-Based Service Contracting. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2006.

“steady, moderately low level of pressure”: Bornstein, David. “The Art of Water Recovery.” New York Times. July 10, 2014.

Britain…National Leakage Initiative: Bornstein, “Recovery.” 

United States…one-sixth of distributed water escapes: Thornton, Julian, George Kunkel, and Reinhard Sturm. Water Loss Control. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

low-income regions…50 percent of total volume: Farley, M., G. Wyeth, Z.B. Ghazali, A. Istandar, and S. Singh. The Manager’s Non-Revenue Water Handbook: A Guide to Understanding Water Loss. Bangkok, Thailand: Ranhill Utilities Berhad and the United States Agency for International Development, 2008.

[if] halved…supply some 90 million people: Kingdom, Bill, Gerard Soppe, and Jemima Sy. “What Is Non-Revenue Water? How Can We Reduce It for Better Service?” The Water Blog. The World Bank. August 31, 2016.

Manila…[successes of] water utility: Bornstein, “Recovery”; International Water Association. “The 2013 IWA Project Innovation Awards—Development” Press release. September 2013.

World Bank–International Water Association partnership: World Bank. “The World Bank and the International Water Association to Establish a Partnership to Reduce Water Losses.” Press release. Stockholm, September 1, 2016.

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