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Water theft: how big is the problem?

Thames Water is using detectives to help catch water thieves. The story, which emerged late last month, may have brought the issue of water theft to the fore, but just how big a problem is it for the water industry? Utility Week investigates.

Every day, water companies lose 3,123 million litres of water from leaky pipes. But how much of this water loss is down to faulty and aging assets, and how much is down to theft?

Recent warning signals from several water companies suggest the number of unauthorised connection to water mains – a criminal offence under the Water Industry Act 1991 – has increased significantly in recent years, and may be partly to blame for a stagnation in water companies’ ability to reduce leakage since 2000.

How big is the problem?

Late last month, Thames Water revealed the number of unauthorised connections within its London and Thames Valley license area had soared from 33 in 2011 to 734 in 2017 – resulting in a loss of between 2 million and 3 million litres of water each year.

To combat this “dramatic crime spike” Thames has deployed a team of investigators, led by a former police detective to track down thieves stealing water from its pipe network. And it’s no wonder the company is taking the issue so seriously.

In June 2017, the water company was fined a record £8.55m for missing its leakage reduction targets for the year, by a margin of 47ml/day – suggesting Ofwat applies a notional value of around £180,000 for every megalitre per day unaccounted for by water companies.

Clearly water theft is only a small contributing factor to Thames’s bigger leakage problem, but with an estimated 2-3 million litres of water being illegally tapped each year, a crack-down on the criminals could still save the company a not insignificant amount of cash.

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