Water companies in England ‘will take 2,000 years to replace pipe network’

Analysis of Water UK data from 2021 by the Angling Trust has found that on average, water companies replace 0.05% of their pipe networks a year.

European averages show that most European countries replace their pipes at about 0.5% a year.

Helena Horton www.theguardian.com 

It would take English water companies 2,000 years to replace their pipes at current rates, leaked data reveals.

Analysis of Water UK data from 2021 by the Angling Trust has found that on average, water companies replace 0.05% of their pipe networks a year.

Southern Water and Severn Trent are the slowest performers, with each having an average replacement rate of 0.03% of their pipe network a year. Northumbrian and South West Water top the leaderboard, each replacing about 0.2% of their network each year.

European averages show that most European countries replace their pipes at about 0.5% a year, giving each pipe an expected life of approximately 200 years. Modern PVC pipes can last between 50 and 100 years depending on ground conditions and other factors.

England’s crumbling pipe network is one of the causes of the vast volumes of water leaked each year, exacerbating droughts and leading to the implementation of hosepipe bans. Water companies in England and Wales lost more than a trillion litres via leaky pipes last year, according to the sector’s latest figures. The industry and its financial regulator, Ofwat, say the water companies lost an average of 2,923.8m litres of water a day in 2021-22, equating to 1.06tn litres over the year, although Ofwat said the figures remained provisional until it has completed validation checks.

Water industry insiders have blown the whistle on the poor state of the country’s pipe network, arguing that water companies are allowing sewers to crumble, leading to floods, sewage spilling into rivers and sewage leaking into the ground causing health and safety problems.

Martin Salter, the head of policy at the Angling Trust, said: “The available data on wastewater pipe replacement rates shows that the typical replacement/renewal rate in the UK is around 0.05% of the network per annum. This implies Ofwat and the water companies are expecting sewers to last for 2,000 years – 10 times longer than the European average. Our increasing concern in pollution situations like this is that any repairs to an already crumbling network will only last a short while before the next wipeout of fish and wildlife.”

Burst sewage pipes also damage wildlife and rivers, spilling raw effluent into waterways.

Last weekend, a sewage leak suspected to have been caused by faulty pipes at the River Ray near Swindon wiped out fish populations on a three-mile length of the Thames tributary.

An initial investigation by the Environment Agency fisheries team indicates that in the bulk of the river, down to the junction with the main River Thames, there has been an almost total wipeout of fish populations and other invertebrates. More than 2,000 dead fish were counted in the sampling area, including large chub, pike and barbel.

Salter added: “There’s clearly some deep seated problems in the sewerage network around Swindon which should have been resolved years ago. We have sought full incident reports from both Thames Water and the Environment Agency and have instructed solicitors to take whatever action is necessary to secure the funds to restore the river and its wildlife. This would be in addition to any criminal prosecutions which must surely follow such a serious pollution.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said: “Protecting the environment is fundamental to what we do and we are sad to say the pollution caused by a burst pipe near Haydon End sewage pumping station has caused the death of fish in the River Ray. We are working with the Environment Agency to make sure the river returns back to normal as soon as we can.

“The broken sewer pipe has now been repaired and we will soon start to move our tankers, which were deployed so we could remove wastewater while we fixed the pipe, out of the area.

“The pollution from the burst reached as far as the confluence between the River Ray and the River Thames, and we have put aeration cannons into the water to reduce any impact of the pollution. Our environmental scientists have found no evidence that the pollution has caused any environmental damage to the River Thames. They have been carrying out further tests from the River Thames back to the source of the pollution so they can see how the river is recovering.”

Water UK, the trade body representing water companies, has been contacted for comment about pipe replacement.

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