Less is More: Reducing Water Loss to Improve Resilience in Iraq

Staff of the Soran Water Directorate use ultrasonic flowmeters to measure the water flow through a main distribution pipe. Photo credit: WADA Tajdid Project

This blog originally appeared in Climatelinks.

Originating in Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers traditionally have met the vast majority of Iraq’s water needs. The rivers are used to pump water into millions of homes and irrigate the historic Mesopotamia agricultural fields. Despite the presence of these great rivers, years of conflict, poor water resource management, and increased upstream damming are impacting the availability and quality of water in Iraq. The district of Soran—located in Erbil Province within the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI)—is one of the fastest growing districts in Iraq. Its population has rapidly grown over the last two decades, as its relative stability has meant refugees from Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from Iraq’s diverse Ninewa Plain have settled in the area.

Decreased water availability and increased population have left Soran’s local services strained, particularly water. “In Soran, while we have enough water, the gaps in our network and the growing population have forced us to truck water to most residents. This is inefficient, costly, and prone to water loss,” explained the Director of the Soran Water DirectorateTahsin Saadallah Abdullah. “Our network is very limited. Residents that receive piped water only receive it for up to one hour every two days and even then, the pressure is limited. Our residents are suffering, and our current approach is unsustainable,” he continued.

In response to this challenge, USAID and Coca-Cola through the Water and Development Alliance (WADA) have partnered with the Soran Water Directorate to improve water management practices and increase water availability by reducing water loss—providing an estimated 35,000 beneficiaries with improved water service delivery, and saving approximately 100 million liters of water losses to the water system per year. To accomplish this goal, WADA introduced the concept of water audits for the first time in Soran City to build the capacity of the Soran Water Directorate to calculate the water balance, the total water entering and exiting the drinking water system, and determine non-revenue water (NRW) quantities. The water audit for the eight targeted district metering areas revealed the system had 3.85 million cubic meters of NRW annually—or approximately 83 percent of total water supplied—meaning the Water Directorate was not collecting sufficient revenue for necessary operations and maintenance and limited water resources were lost through leakages.

Three important lessons came from the water audit:

  1. To assess losses, municipalities need the right equipment and training: WADA provided eight District Metering Areas with ultrasonic flow meters and trained officials not only on the operation of the meters, but on water audit methodology, methods to calculate flow and volumes,  water balance, and how to determine NRW using  computer software.
  2. Water losses are a result of both poor maintenance and poor management: The water audit revealed that leakages on main transmission and distribution pipelines accounted for 31 percent of total NRW. Additional physical losses were observed from leaking and overflowing utility storage tanks and leakages from service connections to customer flowmeters. These leaks are largely the result of poor maintenance, which has been deferred for years due to lack of revenue. Unbilled and unauthorized consumption, however, accounted for the largest share of NRW, largely due to lack of meters, insufficient tariff structure, poor revenue collection, and most importantly, illegal connections.
  3. To address NRW, municipalities need to focus on maintenance, revenue collection, and behavior change: The Water Directorate will need to adopt a multipronged approach, focused on system repairs, improved billing practices and revenue collection, and behavior change to discourage illegal connections and increase residents’ understanding of the need for tariffs. While immediate repairs will decrease NRW in the short term, a robust maintenance program is needed, which must be funded through establishing sound tariff structures and appropriate revenue collection systems. Among the District Metering Areas, unbilled consumption represented as high as 79 percent of the total NRW. With a population that is largely used to getting their water for free, significant effort is needed to improve the billing and revenue collection system, remove illegal connections, and change the attitudes of residents.

The drinking water system in Soran has multiple water supply sources (e.g., rivers, springs, wells) and enough raw water resources to meet its current and future needs according to local standards in Iraq (300 liters/day/person). Similar to other medium-sized secondary cities around the world, the issue is not availability of water, but management of the available water resources. As populations increase, and climate change shifts rainfall patterns and changes water availability, maximizing the efficiency of water distribution will be paramount for water security and resilience. Understanding where losses are occurring is the first step in improving efficiency and can help guide investment in water infrastructure for years to come.

USAID believes in helping its partner countries such as Iraq build a water secure world for all, as detailed in the U.S. Global Water Strategy

By Owen Scott, Senior Practice Specialist on the Water, Energy, and Sustainable Cities Practice with Chemonics International Inc.