Wasted Water: Leaking Pipelines Threaten to Let Balkans Run Dry

As climate change becomes more evident and droughts worsen, Balkan cities need to reduce the huge amount of water leaking each year from pipelines.

Every day a woman went to a deep well in the middle of a vast meadow to fill her pots with water. The well had a lid which had to be covered to stop the water from overflowing. So, every day, the woman opened and closed the lid, until one day she forgot to cover the well.

The next morning, the meadow was deep in water and turning into a marsh. The water kept pouring out and getting higher and higher. Nobody could get down the well and put the lid on again, so they left the water to flow. That’s how Lake Ohrid came to be, according to a Macedonian myth.

In another place, a phantasmagoric queen, seeking to solve the terrible drought in her kingdom, demanded that every member of her tribe reveal and repent of their sins in front of everybody else.

Everybody did so but one wealthy person, who laughed at his fellow tribespeople’s weaknesses. The tribe expelled the man.

Then the good queen heard their prayers and started to cry. Her tears created two mighty rivers, which carved several lakes. The drought was over. Today that area is known as the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. This is the myth about how they were created.

The age of such myths and legends is long gone. Today we wouldn’t need a phantom queen or a careless woman to create a lake of this size in the Balkans. All we need to do is collect all the water that gets lost through the pipelines of the public utility companies that supply the region’s capital cities.

Pipeline holes, loose connections, defects not discovered on time – all of this costs the Balkan capitals a lot of water. So much that if this lost water was directed into one place, it would fill a huge lake, like the ones in the fairy stories.

If the water lost through the pipelines in Skopje, Belgrade, Pristina, Tirana, Zagreb, Sofia, Sarajevo and Ljubljana was collected, it would fill a reservoir the size of Dojran Lake in North Macedonia.

Put into another perspective, the amount of water lost through the water supply systems in these cities would fill 115,000 Olympic-sized pools, just like the one in Tokyo where US swimmer Caeleb Dressel set two Olympic records for 50 and 100-meter freestyle.

Casually not caring about these losses will have to be abandoned soon. Looking out the window and seeing the extended droughts, record wildfires and record heatwaves battering the region, it is clear that something has to be done.

Almost all climate models for the Balkans predict both a rise in average temperatures and a decline in the availability of water of 10 to 13 per cent by 2060.

By the end of the century, the worst-case scenario is that some river basins, including the Vardar basin, will lose over 20 per cent of their water if temperatures continue to rise and no counter-measures are undertaken.

Skopje is doing badly, other cities are worse
As temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius on many days this August in Skopje, residents of the nearby village of Kuchkovo protested because they were left without any water supply.

They were getting their water from a well through a local supply system, but the well ran dry in the drought. The village is not connected to the main water supply system of Skopje.

The villagers are no exception with their trouble. Other villages around the North Macedonian capital, or urban areas situated in higher altitudes, also ran out of water, despite being connected to the public utility system.

The amount of water Balkan capitals lose annually through leaking pipelines would fill over 115,000 Olympic-sized pools which, combined in length, would stretch from Skopje to the North Pole, or China.

There just was not enough water to build pressure in the pipelines and flow all the way to their houses. Low water pressure has become common in the summers in these areas, so often nothing comes out of the taps. Water tanks have to be taken to some areas to supply people with drinking water.

In July, Skopje’s Water and Sewage Public Enterprise issued the same announcement it issues every summer, warning people to not waste or overuse water, by watering their lawns or gardens or clean their yards, for example. Public lawns in parks are also left to dry out in times like this.

These restrictions might not be necessary if so much water did not leak from the pipelines.

All water supplies in the world face certain losses of water. There are two types of loss: commercial losses from unpaid water bills, illegal connections to the system and water use that was not properly charged because of errors made by the company and so on.

The other losses are called “real” losses. That refers to water leaking from holes in old pipelines, loosened joints or valves, broken taps, and from other major defects in the system.

The international recommendation is to keep these losses as low as possible, and not allow them to exceed 20 per cent of the water in the system.

Skopje is already over this bar. In 2020, the city lost 22 per cent of its water, according to the public utility in its annual report. This means that every fifth liter dribbles into the ground and is lost for good. The equivalent of 10,000 Olympic pools was lost last year. It would be enough to flood three of the ten municipalities of the city – Centar, Aerodrom and Karposh – with water two meters deep.

Data for other major Balkan cities gathered from annual or audit reports for 2020 or 2019 show that neighbouring capitals are losing even more water.

Belgrade’s water system in Serbia in 2020 made a real loss of 25 per cent, equal to almost 18,000 Olympic pools.

Sofiaplan, the public enterprise for spatial and strategic planning in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, estimates that in 2019 this city made a “real” loss of 29 per cent of its water supply, equal to 17,400 pools.

There’s no separate data for commercial and real water losses in Podgorica, Montenegro, but the water supply company estimates that it loses a whopping 49 per cent of its water overall.

Skopje lost every fifth liter of drinking water that entered the system in 2020, equal to the amount of water in almost 10,000 Olympic-sized pools.

The water utility enterprise in Pristina, Kosovo, estimated in its business plan for 2020 that almost half of its water, or 48 per cent, is leaking from the pipelines.

There’s no exact data about water losses in the annual reports of Zagreb holding, which includes the water supply company for Croatia’s capital.

However, an audit report for 2019 mentioned that it lost more than half of its water, or 52 per cent, enough to fill 25,582 Olympic pools.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is even worse. The Sarajevo water company in its annual report has blamed a “complex and outdated system” and old and damaged pipelines for the loss of 6 out of every 10 liters, a “real” loss 62 per cent.

Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana is often considered a city of rational solutions in terms of resources, but some estimates say it still loses almost 29 per cent of its water, enough to fill 3,457 pools.

Figures for Albania’s capital, Tirana, are confusing. The regulatory body for water estimated the total loss of water, both commercial and real, at 60 per cent in 2019. Further down it mentioned a “real” loss of only 10 per cent, however. This means that the Albanian capital either has the best pipelines, or the worst system for revealing losses.

No data can be found on water losses in Greece’s capital, Athens. The water management company does not publish such data.

The hole may be tiny, the loss may be huge
No queen from the foundation myth about Plitvice is going to come back today to recover the lost water. Only the utility companies can prevent these losses.

In every report they announce new policies to lower losses, which means lesser extraction of water from sources.

These plans are modest, usually setting targets of reducing losses by 1 per cent a year. The endeavours are complex. Damaged pipelines and problem areas need first to be detected under the water. Then the damaged pipe needs to be dug out, repaired or replaced.

Some holes are too tiny to be noticed.

But a private company cooperating with the Skopje Water and Sewage Company on finding solutions for water loss has published on its website that a hole only 3 millimeters wide can leak up to 9,000 liters over 24 hours.

It says a 6-millimeter hole in a pressured pipe could release up to 38,000 cubic meters of water in 24 hours. A loose tap that drips one drop of water a second can leak 25 liters a day, or 9,000 liters a year.

The water lost from old pipes, loose joints, broken taps and defects is called a ‘real’ loss of water.

If even modest 1-per-cent targets were regularly met, results would follow, as the examples of Vienna and Prague show.

Vienna’s water company says its investments in repairing and renovating pipelines, which began long before climate change was an issue, in the 1970s, has reduced water loss from 25 to 10 per cent.

In the Czech capital, Prague, the use of modern technologies to monitor defects in the network has helped lower water losses by a few percent every year.

In 1997 the Prague water supply system was losing 43 per cent of its water. By 2020, “real” losses were 12 per cent.

But merely repairing pipes may not be enough in the Balkan region. The International Climate Panel noted the Western Balkans as one of the most vulnerable areas of Europe in terms of exposure to the negative effects of climate change.

Forecasts show that rising temperatures, continued unplanned urbanization and deforestation will heavily affect natural resources.

The short-term effects of climate change are estimated to be felt in 2030, just nine years from now. Then the region will enter a period that seemed distant when the first climate models were prepared. By 2060, far more serious changes are expected in weather than the ones we see and feel now.

The predictions for coming years are that periods of drought like this year’s will become longer and heavier. If this year’s drought is expected to last until September, in the following years it may last till October.

Less rainfall is also expected, as well as different distributions. Rainfall will become shorter but stronger, which increases the risks of flooding, such as the heavy floods that battered Skopje in 2017, when 20 people lost their lives. Also, water from heavy rainfall is less likely to be held by the ground or reservoirs and will likely run away.

Climate reports suggest that less availability of water will lower agricultural yields, food production and the production of electricity from water powered plants, as well as help the spread of diseases.

The recommendations say countries in the region should not only lower their water losses but invest in purifying stations that turn water from polluted rivers to usable water.

The availability of drinking water in the summer, when temperatures reach 40 or more degrees Celsius, is already uncertain in some Balkan cities. The problem can only become bigger in future.

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