Water is a precious resource on our planet, and all life requires water to survive. Rapid urbanization has brought to acute focus a need for the intelligent management of fresh water, waste water and storm water to assure the safety of drinking water; for waste-water management and storm-water monitoring to keep urban dwelling secure; and to avoid water scarcity, public-health risks and flooding in urban areas. Recent events such as Melbourne’s Millennium drought and the crisis in Flint, Michigan illustrate not only the range of challenges faced by municipal governments, but also the universal imperative for a greater focus on water and the city. Developed and remote areas alike must be smarter about water.

The world’s water is changing, and in recent years, cities have taken progressive steps toward water sourcing, management and conservation. These holistic new approaches to urban water management look not only at fresh and potable water for the drinking supply, but also at opportunities to optimize management, monitoring and reuse at other stages in water’s life cycle – namely rain, storm and waste water. The ability to recognize the complex matrix of water issues and to use a combination of infrastructure, education & awareness, and policy-level approaches is the future of urban water management. This approach to water – the practice of agile water – can come in the form of policy-level, infrastructural, local and, increasingly, digital interventions.

Image: VisionArc

Water supply and demand

Most essentially, the challenge cities face is the adequate provision of drinking and other water – that is, balancing urban demand and water sourcing. In regions where freshwater access is restricted by geographic and climactic conditions, cities have introduced progressive approaches to address the scarcity.

Places like the Canary islands or Fukuoka, Japan have a long history of water deficiencies due to limited groundwater and frequent droughts, respectively. Both have implemented a combination of infrastructural and policy-based initiatives to alleviate some of the chronic water stress. The Canaries have expanded their capacity through seawater desalination plants and distinguished between potable and non-potable use – amplifying the impact of water reuse. In Fukuoka, desalination plants and pumped storage dams – both unusual in Japan – address the supply-side deficiencies. Additionally, their 2003 Ordinance on the Promotion of Water Conservation is the first of its kind in Japan and encourages city-wide consciousness on sustainable water use.

Increasingly, cities have harnessed policy and education to further address water scarcity by reducing demand through the public promotion of water-saving behaviors, practices, and incentives. Melbourne is a notable example of these types of practices. In response to the 1997-2010 Millennium drought – during which reservoir levels dropped to 25.9% – the city launched a public campaign to educate the public about smarter water practices. Their strategy included rather small and local efforts such as television and radio advertising, rebates on water-saving hose nozzles and water bills that called attention to usage. Combined with strict ordinances on outdoor water use, the behavioral change program effectively balanced Melbourne’s water supply and demand. Over 10 years, domestic consumption nearly halved, and by 2012 water reservoir levels had returned to 80%.

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The value of water

Rather than solely relying on large infrastructural improvements and municipal efforts, cities like Melbourne have re-examined the value of water and the consumer’s responsibility for its conservation. Similarly, Copenhagen, in addition to massive improvements to its groundwater networks, has encouraged a culture of conservation through financial incentive. Danes pay the highest water rates in Europe, but the average Copenhagener uses only 26 gallons a day – compared to 80-100 in the United States. Water is valuable, and in many cities, its consumers will now pay for its waste.

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In Philadelphia, residents are now responsible not just for their use of clean water or waste-water infrastructure, but also for their contribution to urban runoff and its burden on the sewage system. Like many older cities, sewage and storm water flow together at times – overwhelming treatment plants with polluted urban runoff after heavy rains. The overflow – untreated sewage and storm water – consequently finds its way into rivers, and poses a serious public health and environmental challenge. The city’s newest program imposes a storm-water treatment charge based on impervious area square footage – a measure of how much storm water a piece of land contributes – and offers incentives for installing more sustainable storm-water infrastructure. Now, the owner of a parking lot, for example, is financially responsible for his contribution to urban runoff.

Philadelphia’s progressive initiative exemplifies a new attitude toward water. Smart, agile water management occurs at every stage of water’s urban life.

Data, water and the city

Agile water management calls upon cities to look at water more holistically. The agile city must both respond and anticipate its water needs. Key to this is the increasing integration of technology in urban water monitoring and planning. Data-driven technology has allowed municipalities to monitor groundwater, flooding and sea levels and prepare for potential disasters, including flooding and droughts.

One of the largest hurdles of water resource management is the absence of comprehensive data on consumer use. Smart meters are a recent trend in cities throughout the world to provide valuable information for water resource management. In London, Thames Water plans to install over 3 million water meters to provide consumer with detailed usage information encourage sustainable behavior.

Networked monitoring systems can also help anticipate system failures and other potential hazards. Singapore’s water grid system, WaterWiSe, monitors pressure and water quality to detect bursts and leaks and collect aggregate data to predict the impact of operational events such as pipe closures and isolation. Similarly, Melbourne and Perth have introduced a new IoT system that can optimize corrosion inspections and increase the life of infrastructure.