Nature and Biodiversity

How technology can help end the global water crisis

A farmer irrigates his field of potatoes during sunset, in Tilloy-Lez-Cambrai, northern France, August 3, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol - RC11CF6A36C0

A 21st century problem requires a 21st century solution. Image: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Stephane Y. Bessadi
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Technology is a critical aspect of improving the availability and accessibility of clean water around the world.

Many of us start our day by reaching for a glass of water, a ritual said to flush out toxins. For others, even before the crack of dawn, they are already waiting – desperately – for a pail of water, a daily ration to satisfy basic needs.

Water is at once bountiful and scarce. Primary school has ingrained in us that our planet is about 70 percent water, and that through its cycle, water is eternally recurring. This makes it difficult for most of us to believe that water is now scarce and that a growing number of people are faced with the reality of zero water. Cape Town narrowly avoided this a year ago, and in Chennai today four of its main reservoirs are almost completely dry.

In developing countries in Asia, water utilities face three major issues: first, they have to manage diminishing resources and infrastructure that is largely spread out, often dilapidated and not well located and identified; second, they are working with low operational capacities, with a low incentive to perform; and third, they face a general lack of access to operational data and indicators to monitor progress.

Whereas rapid urbanization and climate change – two key drivers of water insecurity – are harder to control, water utilities are more manageable. The key is to transform these operators into modern and efficient organizations, valuing the people behind them and putting smart systems in place.

In recent years, the development of more affordable sensors, connected devices, and communication channels has revolutionized the quantity of technical data, essentially collecting from the ground information on water flows, pressure, and quality. Integrating this data from different sources on a platform has improved the management of infrastructure, energy, and manpower.

According to a 2016 Global Water Intelligence report, the market for control and monitoring solutions in the water sector worldwide is expected to reach $30.1 billion in 2021, with Asia and the Pacific having the biggest market share at $10.3 billion. No wonder automation or the greater Fourth Industrial Revolution is gaining traction—smart systems will only progress further and increase quality of life. Of course, smart systems are not magic. The goal is not to have or use fancy gadgetry but to optimize the operations of the water utilities and raise their service delivery so that the water network and infrastructure work for the people.

For smart systems to be successful, focus needs to be placed on infrastructure, operations and institutions.

Infrastructure determines the performance of water systems, especially how the infrastructure is developed and maintained. More developed utilities have a comprehensive approach to locate, identify, qualify, and manage infrastructure assets, as well as assess the financial requirements to maintain it at a targeted performance. In Asia, though, this is often not the case.

Most utilities in the region require a systematic way to make decisions about repairing, rehabilitating or replacing aging assets, and to develop an effective strategy for long-term funding. Singapore – with its Public Utilities Board, the national water agency ­– is a global leader in this respect, having gone from a backwater island to a self-sustaining, highly advanced water-resilient country.

In the area of operations, a good approach is to begin with the end in mind. These heavy infrastructure projects should fully consider operations and maintenance aspects and capacity building from the design stage as this sets the foundation for the sustainability of the infrastructure and the efficiency of the service provided.

Utility transformation relies on incentivized management and operational staff, whose skills and capacity to operate systems should be well thought out. Not only are training sessions required, but a full reorganization of the utility around the performance and motivation of its staff.

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Transforming water utilities requires not only improved infrastructure and operations, but also strong institutions that support and monitor the utility, both at the operations and regulation levels. Recent examples of cities facing water shortages show how this monitoring is important to ensure that utilities have necessary water resources and infrastructure to satisfy customer demand in the short and long term, and that tariffs are adjusted to allow recovery of costs.

Furthermore, these institutions should assess operators’ performance and monitor indicators from sources to examine what could impact their contractual arrangements, tariffs revisions, and incentive mechanisms. This holistic approach is the new trend to support governments and regulators to face water scarcity in cities and to better anticipate and manage a water crisis.

An independent supervision mechanism should also be in place to follow up achievements and enforce strong regulation in case of failure to comply. Smart systems can also further enhance business intelligence and detailed analysis for better control of contract performance.

These three focus areas – infrastructure, operations and institutions – together, made more formidable by smart systems, build a solid base from which we can help ensure water supply and equitable access. This is just the start but it could be coupled with water conservation measures, integrated resources management, and proactive governance.

This gives us a chance to avoid potential water crisis and conflict. At the end of the day, what we want is water for all, 24/7.

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