Water scarcity issues are a major problem in many parts of the world, affecting the quality of life, the environment, industries and the economy. Water scarcity can be attributed to natural causes such as climate change and drought as well as human causes such as population growth, water quality and resource allocation. Another major factor that contributes to the water scarcity problem is the ageing water distribution infrastructure. The pipeline network was laid several decades ago when the population was much smaller and the demand was significantly less. In the current scenario, the pipeline network is unable to sustain the increasing pressure of rising demand, which eventually leads to the loss of water due to leakages in the pipelines.
Water is the most precious resource on earth, which makes it imperative for utilities across the world to upgrade and manage the pipeline infrastructure. Through better management of the pipeline infrastructure, water utilities can detect and repair leaks in a timely manner and ensure the protection of vital assets and the environment.
Recent trends and developments
In recent years, water utilities have adopted asset management to evaluate and manage their pipeline infrastructure. Until two decades ago, utilities used to set aside a budget to replace pipes based solely on age. They have now transitioned from simply replacing an ageing pipe to evaluating pipelines regularly. They use multiple criteria to decide whether to replace or repair deteriorating pipelines as replacing pipes that have little damage is less cost-effective than repairing.
Water utilities are now taking a holistic approach to their infrastructure using geographic information system (GIS) mapping and database recording to identify and locate all pipelines. Knowledge about the age and location of assets helps in determining the need for inspections, repair or replacement. Further, utilities are focusing on the proper installation of pipelines as the longevity of the pipeline infrastructure depends greatly on how it was installed.
The condition assessment process has also gained traction over the past few years as it prioritises a project based on its age, material, structural condition, failure impact, and overall risk. This process involves rating the structural condition of a pipeline, or a pump station or other equipment, and assigning grades based on the condition of the equipment.
Many utilities have also started rating the overall risk of the project on a scale of 1 to 100 to place it in the department’s capital investment programme. A higher score means that the risk is the highest and the project must be given priority. The score helps the utilities to set a schedule and better manage the pipeline infrastructure.
The private sector has also started taking part in water distribution activities in India. In 2013, SUEZ India Private Limited partnered with the Delhi Jal Board for the Malviya Nagar Water Services (MNWS) project, which aims to improve the water supply to 40,000 connections in the Malviya Nagar underground reservoir command area. The MNWS has successfully integrated GIS and remote sensing with construction drawings, leak detection, mapping, consumer survey and assets to reduce response time and increase efficiency. Further, a contour map with a resolution of 1 metre interval has been constructed to understand the flow through the supply network and assess the locations where additional water pressure may be required because of changes in elevation.
The way forward
The water pipeline segment is undergoing a shift in material types from traditional, legacy materials like ductile iron and steel, to newer materials such as prestressed concrete and various plastics, which include polyvinyl chloride, high density polyethylene and polyethylene. Going forward, greenfield pipe networks are most likely to use plastic pipes, which have lower upfront costs and are easier to install.
Utilities are also looking at trenchless solutions for pipe replacement and rehabilitation in order to reduce network maintenance costs. The trenchless rehabilitation market has grown steadily over the past 40 years, gaining significant traction in the past decade with the increased number of suppliers and solutions. Trenchless solutions can be applied, with minimum initial planning efforts and lower interference with the environment. Trenchless technology solutions are experiencing increasing popularity, with horizontal directional drilling, micro-tunnelling and cured-in-place pipe among the most frequently used methods.
The disruption caused by pipe breaks and replacements in densely populated cities is much higher than in rural areas, making urban utilities more sensitive to pipe breakage rates. Hence, utilities laying pipelines in densely populated regions have now started investing in pipe material.