Water is our common future. And yet, most of the time, we barely acknowledge its importance in the global geopolitical context and still act as it were an unlimited resource. A recent study suggests that water-related natural disasters, from floods to droughts, could cost global GDP $5.6 trillion in the upcoming quarter century. How can emerging technologies help alleviate risks and reduce water waste through innovative approaches and solutions?
A 2013 NASA study predicted warmer wide-reaching temperatures would mean increased rainfall in some parts of the world and decreased rainfall in others, leading to both more flooding and more droughts worldwide. In January 2024, while Barcelona and the Mediterranean area were looking for solutions to tackle water shortages, Bolivia, particularly La Paz department, was coping with floods resulting in casualties and damage.
No need to say that there are more examples of contrasting scenarios like this one in other parts of the world. We can’t say we haven’t been tipped off beforehand. And still, some promote the myth that it’s all a natural cycle, even if they have been debunked many times over.
The reality is that water and climate change are inextricably linked. Now, water scarcity constitutes a big issue, particularly in big cities and their surrounding areas. The problem has worsened in recent decades as a result of rampant urbanization, and population growth resulting in social inequalities. In fact, new data from WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas show that 25 countries — housing one-quarter of the global population — face extremely high water stress each year.
In light of this growing scarcity of water, the strategy for many countries is to become increasingly less dependent on rainwater and to focus efforts on technological investments and water-saving culture not only to meet basic human needs but also to assure sufficient water flows in the environment. Even more so when considering that water demand is expected to increase by 20-30% by 2050, according to the UN World Water Development Report (2019).
The paper warns that, under this background, there will be more than two billion people living in countries with severe water shortages, and about four billion people will suffer from severe water shortages for at least one month per year.
In this light, Shyam Varan Nath, Specialist Leader at Deloitte AI, considers that the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, which points to ensuring access and sanitation for all, is critical. “Despite 71% of the Earth is covered by water, it remains a “scarce” commodity. Only a small fraction of this is fresh water and it’s mainly locked in the glaciers or deep below the surface as ground water. On top of the fact that fresh water is very scarce, substantial amounts of it are lost in the movement of water to the point of use,” he says.
“Non-revenue water (NRW) refers to the portion of water that enters a water supply system but is never billed to customers because it “disappears” in transit, leading to further challenges to water utilities organizations,” he adds.
Efficient water management
Overall, efficient water management, which not only implies monitoring drinking water but also following pressure variations in pipes, checking water quality in facilities, or detecting chemical leaks, is a challenge that affects multiple sectors such as agriculture, livestock, industry, services, and, of course, cities.
In addition, we need to consider that in the world’s push to achieve a low-carbon economy, water is often forgotten. But water utilities are responsible for two percent of total annual global emissions — about as much as the shipping industry. So, water cannot be excluded when designing policies to reduce emissions.
So, what to do in this scenario? “IoT can revolutionize water management,” Shyam Varan Nath puts. “A network of smart sensors, monitoring pipeline leaks to soil moisture in real-time, the level of minerals of impurities in water, feeding data to AI-powered systems that optimize water distribution, predict maintenance needs, and enable smart agriculture. This can dramatically reduce water waste, improve water quality, and ensure efficient delivery to underserved human communities,” he says.
“Leak detection alone can save cities millions of gallons of water annually, while precision agriculture, with the help of sensors connected to IoT applications, can slash water usage in crops by a large fraction,” adds the expert.
Xavier Martínez Lladó, Director of the Water, Air and Soil Unit at Eurecat Technology Center of Catalonia, echoes this sentiment: “Emerging digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, must allow better resource management by identifying relevant information that facilitates the identification of anomalies or optimizing the necessary resources for processing or distribution processes.”
And yet that means that in addition to deploying IoT sensors, we need to correctly analyze the data collected. In this sense, utilizing cloud computing and big data analytics can improve water resource modeling. This would help in predicting water availability, managing demand, and planning for potential shortages.
Martínez Lladó also talks about advanced treatment technologies such as filtration and purification methods which enable the safe reuse of wastewater for various purposes like irrigation, industrial processes, or even direct consumption: “The new materials should significantly reduce the energy to obtain drinking water, increasing the efficiency of certain treatment processes such as reverse osmosis,” he says.
We could add to that improved membrane technologies that can make the desalination process more sustainable and cost-effective, increasing the availability of freshwater in water-scarce regions.
Finally, “the latest advances in optical technologies and materials technology together should allow the development of new sensors that allow to determine quickly and economically the quality and composition of water, also allowing to optimize the treatment processes,” Martínez Lladó concludes.
Change of mindset
In short, there is a panoply of available technologies to improve the whole water cycle. We can even think about Blockchain to create transparent and tamper-resistant records of water transactions and ensure accountable water allocation.
The problem is that the deployment of all these advances takes time and money, and citizens or customers need to accept changes, which is never easy.
In this sense, promoting a water-saving culture is crucial as people’s behaviors are generally locked in their daily social practices. Mobile applications that allow consumers to monitor and control their water usage could raise awareness and promote responsible water consumption habits. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about being aware that we all have a great deal at stake here.
The Climate Change and Sustainability Track at IOTSWC24, to be held on 21-23 May in Barcelona, will deep dive into this key issue to both generate business opportunities and improve the world’s wellbeing. You know that in this goal every drop counts.
Article by: Anna Solana