Wednesday, May 02, 2012: 12:28:34 PM

Growing Role of Plastics in Urban Water Infrastructure

Pushp Raj Singhvi
Vice Chairman and Managing Director
Borouge (India) Pvt. Ltd.
The limited availability of new sources of freshwater linked with the uncertainties of climate change and the poor state of the existing underground infrastructure has prompted many countries to examine their future water management strategy. Large infrastructure projects such as the building of a desalination plant in London, once thought to be in one of the wettest countries in Europe and a major project to collect and recycle treated wastewater in Queensland, Australia show just how fragile our existing water systems have become. However, despite these projects, Asia is where the greatest level of investment is required over the next 25 years to modernise existing water systems and to meet expanding demand according to the OECD (Hamilton, Global Infrastructure Partners, World Energy Outlook, OECD).

In many regions water shortages are aggravated by leakage from old cast iron pipe systems that have not been replaced or adequately maintained over the years. In North America alone, there are 700 water main failures per day, most of them due to corrosion, which leak 6 billion gallons of water daily - enough to provide drinking water for the world’s population for a whole year. In 1998, the US Senate commissioned a survey to estimate the cost of leakage in the water and sewage systems to the consumer water – the result was a total of US $36 billion (CC Technologies Laboratories Inc. ‘Corrosion cost and preventative strategies in the USA’, FHWA-RD- 01-156, Sept 30 2001) and clearly, this would be an even greater cost today.

Metal pipes that corrode are not the right answer for the underground systems of today, due to the high level of traffic and environmental loading in most modern cities. In systems where reliability and durability play such an important role, resistance to corrosion and earth movement is crucial and welded plastic systems are the only appropriate materials for buried pipe systems in the 21st century.

All the facts point to more difficult times ahead in terms of access to fresh water, particularly in Asia, which will require those responsible for water supply to review their water management strategy. What has been clearly seen from experience in Europe is that polyethylene has become the most popular material for small and medium sized water distribution mains due to lower total installed costs and reduced leakage levels. Even for large diameter trunk mains, until recently was the preserve of iron and GRP pipe, PE is now becoming more popular as designers and operators take full benefit of the lower installation and operating costs of PE systems. ‘Whole Life Costing’ provides a methodology to take all these costs into account before selecting the appropriate pipe material for the project.

In Asia, more than anywhere, there is a major challenge to modernise the existing systems and install new networks to meet the expanding needs for the future. This future expansion and industrial development will undoubtedly favour those regions and cities with abundant and reliable power, water and transportation systems. Clearly, based on experience, polyethylene can significantly help in establishing a reliable and durable water network which will aid future development.

Ultimately cost will not be the overriding factor, because as water becomes scarcer, durability and reliability of the system will be the governing factor. Under these conditions, the corrosion resistance and joint tightness of PE will make it the only choice no matter what the pipe diameter.

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