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Water, interrupted: How water utilities manage service disruptions

Whether it’s a burst main, crucial maintenance works, project installations or a grizzly ‘fat berg’ clogging a sewage network, managing community disruption is a crucial element of any water utility’s job, writes Elle Hardy.

There are plenty of examples of community disruption that don’t involve civil works, and many of them require water utilities to respond: natural disasters, water shortages and contamination scares, just to name a few.

With the effects of climate change and growing populations placing evermore stress on our water supplies, here we take stock of how major disruptions have been managed and share insights on how it can be done better.

Disturbance done right

Day Zero sounds like the title of an apocalyptic action film, and for the Western Cape region of South Africa, home to 5.8 million people, it was almost a reality. In late 2017 and early 2018, Cape Town became the first major city in the world to potentially run out of water, with dam levels as low as 13.5%. ‘Day Zero’ referred to extreme water restrictions, where municipal water supplies would largely be turned off and residents would have to queue for a daily water ration.

"The last bit, the last vital drop, came because we got really scared."

Peter Willis, University of Cambridge

“The process by which water reaches individual taps across any modern city is immensely complex, and, historically, cities and utilities have taken pride in not bothering the citizens about how this happens," said Peter Willis, a senior associate at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in Cape Town.

“The deal is you just pay us your rates, and we will supply the water and everybody’s happy. It’s when that system breaks down, however, that that agreement breaks down.

“After months of the mayor saying that a well-run city does not run out of water, there’s nothing to see here, leave it to us, there came a moment when they realised that they needed the citizens to drop an extra amount of consumption quite rapidly.”

Willis said the city managed this monumental switch in communications and strategy by first talking to business associations, to allow them time to secure their own water supply and go off grid. Then, they went to the public with data to show the severity of the problem.

“The bulk of water users in Cape Town, people who conventionally use a lot of water in their middle-class lives, all suddenly got to know how the system works, and that it is fallible, and that there are a lot of things we can do to reduce our vulnerability to a catastrophe.”

The city broke records in reducing consumption to less than half of what it was at the beginning of the three-year drought, which is believed to be a world first in consumption reduction. As Day Zero approached, Cape Town managed to save approximately 713 ML per day against a target of 500 ML per day.

“The last bit, the last vital drop, came because we got really scared,” Willis said.

“There’s a very obvious strategic question to be asked by any city or authority: at what point do you scare your customers, your citizens? Because it’s you that’s really playing with fire. And politically, we don’t want to scare voters. But it did have a very electrifying effect on household consumption.”

Capturing hard-won wisdom

Willis said the crisis became unnerving as residents realised that social unrest might occur on account of water restrictions.

"The actual challenge was reducing water and still living a decent life, and we managed,” Willis said.

As the Cape Town crisis receded, Willis and colleagues moved to establish an initiative aimed at capturing the lessons learnt from what had passed as a hair-raising event in Cape Town’s history.

“Like Australia, we are vulnerable to climate change if all we have is surface water. Everybody is working on this common problem with adaptation and innovation,” Willis said. 

“But it struck me that there is no institutional mechanism that exists for us to capture the changes that we’re making, the things we’re learning, the innovations we're putting in place, and remembering what worked and didn’t work – because there is going to be a next time.”

Willis helped form the Cape Town Drought Response Learning Initiative (CTDRLI), which has recorded a film library of interviews with people who helped manage the crisis.

“We’ve also begun to distill some 33 hours of footage in what we’re calling ‘modular lessons’,” he said.

“These will be 15-minute films, each focusing on a different lesson. They cover things like: how do you affect household level change? What did we learn about the dilemma of utilities selling water? And then asking people to use less of it? And then their revenue crashes? How do you get out of that data?”

The interviews are also being used by CTDRLI for a documentary to help spread the message that cities, and citizens, need to be aware that Day Zero may one day become a reality.

Facing up to challenges

Many utilities haven’t come close to dealing with a crisis like Cape Town’s, but for ordinary residents, a standard water disruption can still be distressing. The challenges faced by utilities during disruptive works and events are many, but communication is the most important factor in alleviating them, according to SA Water Customers, Strategy and Innovation General Manager Anna Jackson.

"We ran the information campaign predominantly through social media, and the response was phenomenal."

Anna Jackson, SA Water

A recent outage to a regional community put SA Water’s incident management plan to the test. What they didn’t expect was the community response.

“We found a leak on a main transfer pipe running through to a community with over 7000 customers," Jackson said.

"Once we determined the extent of the damage, we had to make sure we assembled the right people – not just the engineers, but getting customer communication and customer care in the room with them, too.”

SA Water’s incident response is highly proactive, Jackson said, and runs at an operational level with executives kept informed of events. The repair work was complex, with the pipe running under a footbridge and surrounded by concrete, on top of turning off the water supply to a whole community.

“We ran the information campaign predominantly through social media, and the response was phenomenal,” Jackson said.

“We pushed most of it out through Facebook. We found that when we targeted geographical areas, people in the community began tagging other people in the community, and it became quite an organic community campaign.”

Though digital communication is a boon to utilities working with disruptions and crises, water literacy still remains a challenge.

Floods in February 2019 put Townsville's utilities to the test

Flood crisis

When Townsville suffered severe floods in February 2019, its utility systems and preparedness was put to the test.

“The council, and the whole disaster coordination, was focused on minimising the impact on the community," Townsville City Council Water and Waste General Manager Scott Moorhead said.

"That was where our learning and focus was. Dam safety is always critical, and a lot of our work was downstream – working with the community, evacuating the community, and working with all the other agencies to manage that."

Moorhead believes the communication between different government departments was the best
he has ever seen.

Moorhead said the city is always looking to improve their procedures, particularly around emergency actions.

“The police didn’t want to do a forced evacuation, as that would then cause a new set of problems. Leaving was voluntary, and one of the success factors of the whole operation was that there were no fatalities caused by opening the dam. That was our first priority.”

Responding to contamination

In 2016, lead was detected in the drinking water of a number of public buildings in Perth, including the children’s hospital. These detections attracted strong media interest and public concern. Water Corporation coordinated a detailed plan of action to determine the situation and reaffirm confidence in the safety of drinking water throughout the state.

A report into the incident, Lead in the Water: A Water Utilities Response, notes that as part of the response, additional sampling points were installed at the site of the children’s hospital and sampling frequency for lead was increased at many key locations.

“To further validate the water quality information of our metro distribution system, samples were collected at key locations corresponding to the higher risk points of supply (such as hospitals, aged care, and schools),” the report states.

To manage residents’ fears, the sampling frequency was further increased, and the public were informed and given access to information on how to manage potable water. For buildings, the report found there “must be collaboration between regulators, property owners and key organisations. For these sites, to achieve safe water post meter involves assessment, monitoring, understanding and operation of often
complex water distribution systems.”

Ultimately, the incident showed how changes in management or operation of a water distribution system can have considerable consequences for lead in drinking water.

And given that community concern and media reports that arose from these events was significant, it can take many years before public confidence in drinking water safety is restored.

First published as ‘Water, interrupted’ in Current magazine October 2019.