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We need to take water scarcity more seriously. This is how technology can help

Water scarcity is not just an issue in arid, rural or underdeveloped regions, but increasingly affects affluent nations and urban areas as well.

Water scarcity is not just an issue in arid, rural or underdeveloped regions, but increasingly affects affluent nations and urban areas as well. Image: Siemens AG

Anja Eimer
General Manager, Global Water Industry, Siemens
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water during at least one month per year as water scarcity becomes a global problem.
  • Thanks to science and technological innovation, we now have the tools to effectively tackle water security and safety via leakage detection.
  • One reason why this tech is not yet widespread is water is treated as an unlimited commodity by societies that rely on it for wellbeing and growth.

There is no future without water – what sounds like a commonplace phrase might in fact soon become a dire prediction, if present statistical trends hold. Currently, 3.6 billion people face inadequate access to water during at least one month per year. According to UN-Water, the number of city inhabitants lacking safely managed drinking water has increased by more than 50% since 2000.

Moreover, water scarcity is not just an issue in arid, rural or underdeveloped regions, but increasingly affects affluent nations and urban areas as well. How can we reconcile this with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all?

A message on water from COP27

There’s only one way to do this: We need to get serious about water. This is why this year, for the first time, water was on the official agenda of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP27 in Egypt. Csaba Kőrösi, president of the UN General Assembly, asked the pointed question: “When this conference ends, will this glass be half full or half empty?”

He and other world leaders remain confident that the glass will be half full – if we commit to tackling water security and safety. And thanks to science and technology innovation, we now have the tools to do so effectively.

One area in which science and technology can make a great contribution to ensuring a safe, secure and affordable water supply to communities is leakage detection.

It is almost shocking to see how much water is simply lost in water networks, even in developed nations. A recent paper by Amanda Rupiper et al found that water utilities in the United States lose approximately 17% of their water to leaks each year. The global volume of non-revenue water has been estimated to be 346 million cubic metres per day, amounting to 30% of water system input volumes across the world. Non-revenue water not only impacts the economic performance of water supply companies; it also increases pressure on natural water resources, as more water is produced and processed than is actually needed.

According to a white paper by Global Water Intelligence, water networks are responsible for 135 million tons of CO2e emissions. Reducing this figure by 30% by avoiding leaks would amount to a sizeable decrease in our water infrastructure’s carbon footprint. Investing in leakage detection technologies will, therefore, often pay for itself by reducing non-revenue water and saving the associated energy costs, as well as helping utilities to avoid penalties for exceeding their CO2 budget.

How tech can guard water from well to tap

Luckily, we have many ways to address water network leakage. Advanced technologies can help detect and localise leaks, from huge bursts down to the tiniest seeps.

Employing technology similar to that used for detecting water on other planets, satellites can provide imagery that helps identify leaks in water pipelines here on Earth. But one needn’t look to the sky for solutions to water leakage: advanced digital tools can use the data from existing metering and automation systems and combine different measuring methods to detect leaks.

It is even possible to combine data from the water distribution network with cloud computing, artificial intelligence and hydraulics simulations to uncover hidden anomalies, including those that point to leaks. Using these digital tools, plant operators can detect leaks more quickly and precisely, and take targeted remediation actions that significantly reduce leakage times and rates.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

The business case for saving water

So, why are these technologies not more widely employed already? One factor could be that water is still treated as an inexhaustible commodity by the very societies that rely on water for their wellbeing and growth. Proper legislation and information can change that. Denmark, for example, has achieved some of the lowest water losses in the world by instituting a penalty on any losses greater than a 10% leakage threshold. This approach might serve as a model for other nations as well.

With authorities recognising water as an essential and scarce resource, utilities might soon be faced with new regulations and pricing frameworks for water that make integrated management of water networks indispensable. But even without this, the economic benefits of reducing leakage are immense. In 2022, energy will account for a third of global utility operating expenses. Investing in leakage reduction helps to save not only thousands of cubic metres of water, but also the energy needed to pump and treat all this water. The gains can be substantial. The Swedish utility VA SYD recently carried out an innovative project to detect and eliminate water leaks from pipelines using artificial intelligence. The savings that this generates will help VA SYD achieve its ambitious goals of becoming a climate-neutral, energy-positive water utility with zero unplanned disruptions of service by 2030.

Have you read?

Water action is climate action

As the effort by VA SYD demonstrates, practicing water consciousness and efficiency is not only vital for reaching the targets of SDG 6 – it is also a lever to reduce our carbon footprint and minimize human impact on nature. Much more can be achieved if we use the right solutions. Digitalization can serve as a major driver of savings and optimization in the water and waste water industry. So, let’s get serious about water.

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