One Problem, Two Cities

Posted on by Piers Clark

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Piers Clark, Chairman of Isle Group, kindly shares an article with Watershed Issues…

Over the years I have been to enough conferences to know that when an important government minister takes to the podium the audience is in for a fairly dull 20 minutes. No one is going to learn very much, although everyone will be respectful and clap at the end as the minister scuttles from the room with the feeble excuse of having another pressing engagement (while everyone actually knows their hasty departure is to avoid answering difficult questions). Somewhat depressingly, it is a universal truth that the more senior the minister, the less informed they will be, and the faster they will scuttle.

As I sat at the PUB (Singapore’s National Water Agency) Spotlight event in Singapore [earlier this year] and heard the chairman announce grandly that ‘His Excellency Ek Soon Chan, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Energy in Cambodia’ was going to speak my little heart sank. I reached for my iPad with every intention of spending the session quietly clearing my email backlog.

Within seconds it was clear that this was not going to be a typical ministerial pontification. This session was going to be uniquely informative and entertaining. His topic was how they have managed to steadily reduce leakage in Phnom Penh from 76% in 1993 to less than 10% in 2017. To be brutally honest, the activities they undertook to achieve this result were not rocket science, or indeed any different from those that would be adopted in any major city anywhere in the world (namely: identify the key ‘burst risk’ locations, repair and replace ageing pipes, install meters, establish robust maintenance schedules). What stood out was the passion and personal experience with which the Minister spoke.

I think my favourite anecdote was how, while rolling out a metering programme, one of the local residents, who didn’t like the proposed meter installation plan, put a gun to the Minister’s head and threatened to pull the trigger. In a ballsy response, the Minister simply arranged for the water to the whole street to be turned off. His reasoning was simple: You want water, you pay for it.

His talk was followed by Mr Kawagoe from the Bureau of Waterworks in Tokyo. They serve 13 million people and, if I understood the interpreter correctly, they have enough water mains to go around the circumference of the earth, twice. Despite this enormous asset base, Tokyo has been able to reduce leakage from 80% in 1945 (wars have a tendency to mess with pipe integrity) to just 2% in 2012.  Rather humbly they stated that this was ‘probably’ world class. Probably.

Mr Kawagoe went on to say, with just a little bit of shame, that last year the leakage level had crept up to 3.2%. Ignoring the fact that a 1.2% shift must surely be within the margins of error I can think of numerous water utilities who would give their right arm to have leakage levels 5 times this. Leaving arguments aside as to whether this level of leakage control is financially astute (the cost of maintaining it will surely far exceed the cost of allowing some leaks to persist, especially in a city like Tokyo where any street works will be disruptive), this is a staggering achievement. I waited with baited breath to hear how this had been achieved. Mr Kawagoe talked about they utilise some clever widgets to find leaks, and an intensive training programme so their staff know what to do. As with the Cambodian Secretary of State, nothing he said was rocket science. There was one thing however that might just explain their stellar performance: Since Tokyo is in an earthquake zone they install thicker pipes than usual, and they have special earthquake-resistant ‘flexi’ joints that move when the earth tremors (how cool is that?). Perhaps that’s the secret. We just need to build better pipes. Who would have thought.

I am also pleased to report that neither speaker scuttled. Indeed, my new Cambodian Ministerial hero stayed for the whole day and participated fully in all the debates and group discussions. A politician who knows what they are talking about and shows respect to his audience. Whatever next? It will never catch on.

Isle Group is a specialist water consultancy business with offices in Australia, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, The Netherlands, the USA and the UK.

Article re-produced by kind permission of Piers Clark. If you would like to read more of Piers’ observations please visit his semi-regular blog, Notes from Piers, at

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