Telling Tales – Communicating the cost of leaks

By Natasha Wiseman, Founder & Chief Executive of Make Water Famous and WiseOnWater.

A few weeks ago I encountered a leak on the main thoroughfare through my neighbourhood. A steady stream of clean water was escaping from a meter box pit in the pavement, and flowing downhill, past the local primary school.

I have written more articles on leakage over the last 20 years than I have seen leaks in the wild, so I seized on the opportunity to do my bit. Luckily, the householder was just leaving her property, and I asked if she had made a report to the water company. She said planned to do so when she got back later that day.

A few days later, passing the same spot, I was surprised to see the leak still active. The adage goes that if you want a job done well, do it yourself, so I searched for the local utility’s ‘report a leak’ page on my phone, and attempted to fill it in while I walked.

The form was quite ambiguous, presuming the leak was at my own home, which made it hard to complete. Then it did not actually send.

I dug around a bit to find the phone number, and eventually spoke to a helpful customer service operator, who went through all the questions and promised to update me in due course. I forgot all about the leak and went away for a few days. When I came back, it was still there.

I called customer service again. Curiously, I was told that someone had been out and fixed the leak, and also that it was on the customer side of the property.

“I’m looking at the leak now,” I urged. “It’s coming from the boundary box on the pavement, and it’s still water that’s being wasted, whoever’s property it’s on.”

The operator was firm in her view that the leak had been fixed, but eventually mentioned the number of the property that had been visited.

“That’s not that property,” I say, “it’s number 33.”

“Well, it’s next door so they will have found it,” she counters.

So I found myself in a protracted debate about whether I could see water flowing, whether somebody had actually been out and fixed the leak, whether it was the customer’s responsibility to fix leaks on the public pavement and whether number 33 is next door to 34.

I was fast becoming a leakage Karen and complained that I had not heard from them following my previous report, when they had promised to contact me. The operator gave in, and started to file a new report. She said I would hear from the leakage engineer when they were on their way the following day.

The leak was duly fixed by a very helpful leakage technician. He called to let me know he was en route, how the job was progressing, and again to let me know the work was complete.

I was still shocked at how much effort it required to get one leak fixed and the lack of trust in me as a member of the public. Why was my live report not enough? And do not get me started on the need for leakage technicians to liaise directly with customers, when they could be getting on with the job.

What worries me most of all is that neither the customer stepping over the leak every day, nor the hundreds of parents dropping their kids off at school, or anyone else, seems to have reported the leak. I was the only one.

Amazing leak detection technologies are being developed and delivered in the UK water sector. In just one example, sensors installed in the network by Thames Water and Ovarro are saving millions of litres every day.

This innovation needs to go hand-in-hand with public education and efficient service and communication from the water company. Not only does it need to be much easier to report leaks, people need know they have a responsibility to themselves and their community to be the eyes and ears on the ground.

Taking that engagement further, why not reward people for reporting leaks – the value of the water saved discounted from their water bill perhaps?

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