Nº 1 2014 > ICT and water management

Smart water management

Smart water management

Access to basic water services, including clean drinking water and sanitation, is still unavailable to much of the world’s population. According to United Nations estimates, 783 million people do not have access to clean water. Almost 2.5 billion people do not have access to adequate sanitation, while six to eight million people die annually from the consequences of water-related disasters and diseases. Safe, adequate and efficiently managed freshwater resources are essential to the sustenance of basic livelihoods, and to the economic and political stability of countries.

Growing pressures on freshwater resources are rising by the minute owing to ever-increasing populations, the growing needs of agriculture and other industries, as well as increases in energy consumption and pollution. Climate change is becoming a real and global threat; without smart management, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will face severe water and energy shortages, ultimately leading to hunger and disease outbreaks.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) have the potential to enhance water sustainability, efficiency and accessibility — for example ICT can also be incorporated to increase efficiency in irrigation, saving up to 70 per cent of water in some networks. But standardization and governance are needed to ensure that these technologies are properly managed to protect water resources, and to ensure sustainable development and the equitable distribution of water-derived benefits.

ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Water Management provides a peer forum to tackle the existing global water challenges so that countries can use ICT to overcome them. Standards are required particularly in water information transfer, storage, access and updating, to allow geographic and time-dependent characteristics (such as smart metering) to be linked.

The following article is based on an ITU/UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) report on Partnering for Solutions: ICTs & Smart Water Management, researched and written by Amanda McIntosh and Solomon Hailu Gebrechorkos, under the auspices of the Carlo Schmid Programme. The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of Ramy Ahmed Fathy, Chairman of ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Water Management, and Cristina Bueti of ITU.

Water crisis

Water scarcity, pollution, flooding, and other forms of water stress pose extreme threats to the global community. According to the United Nations, around 1.2 billion people (almost one-fifth of the world’s population) live in areas of physical water scarcity, while 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people (almost one quarter of the world’s population) face economic water shortage because countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.

In many countries, the management of freshwater resources is less than optimal. This is extremely serious when water is scarce. Over-exploitation of water resources is another cause of water scarcity, as countries push for economic development.

Water leakage is also a high concern. This is a clear indication that there is need for smarter infrastructure, as well as for investment to replace ageing infrastructure.

Though sustainable water management policies have been high on the agenda of most governments, the potential of ICT to improve water management has not been exploited fully. Harnessing the capabilities of ICT within the water sector is a smart means to manage and protect the planet’s water resources.

Smart water management seeks to resolve problems in the water sector by promoting the coordinated development and management of water. The aim is to maximize economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of water.

Smart water management technologies

Smart technologies play a crucial role in effectively and efficiently managing water resources, distribution and consumption. With ICT, the work of measuring, monitoring, metering and control of water resources can be done at lower cost and with greater precision. Satellite remote sensing, cloud computing, semantic sensor web and geographical information systems (GIS) — to name but a few — are common examples of the well-established technologies that provide information today on real-time water use.

ICT tools have made it possible to collect high-resolution digital geographical data through remote sensing. Digital geographical data can be used to create topographical models, while digital photography and videography have made it possible to store and retrieve large volumes of ground information. Such information is obviously useful to policy-makers.

Advanced ICT techniques using laser technologies are even able to capture stream flow data from one end of a river without the use of a gauge. Smart metering technologies can provide individuals, businesses and water companies with information about water use and demand, as a basis for decision-making.

Smart water metering systems can measure water consumption in real time, as well as abstraction for irrigation, and can automatically communicate this information for monitoring and billing purposes.

By combining smart water metering and mobile banking, a reliable transparent and secure flow of funds and information between the consumer and the water service provider can be achieved. This leads to the reduction of water payment transaction costs as well as administrative costs, which consequently increases revenues for water utilities.

The ICT industry has developed a range of devices and technologies tailored to key activities within the water sector. Use of these tools has led to the improvement of water allocation, consumption and usage. It has also led to the mitigation of natural hazards and to environmental protection. The table below illustrates the products and technologies provided by the ICT industry to serve the needs of the water sector.

Smart cities and regions

Smart water management is an obvious fit for smart cities and regions seeking increased efficiency and more active involvement of citizens in enhancing sustainability. For example, in Canada, the government of British Columbia has initiated a Living Water Smart programme for sustainable water stewardship. This provincial plan involves eleven ministries and a range of stakeholders, and envisages investment in smart infrastructure.

The use of smart water metering has opened up possibilities for citizens to report leaks, faulty water pipes and general conditions of water canals and other infrastructure. Complaints can now include a simple photo; and details of a faulty water canal or pipe can be uploaded in real time to a central database. An example of this technology is CreekWatch, one component of IBM’s Smarter Cities Water Management Solution. Social media and interactive tools offer water agencies and utilities powerful means to communicate and engage citizens on local water management challenges and drive conservation programmes.

Technologies such as water point mapping can help in improving access to a water supply, by allocating resources to deliver basic services where they are needed the most. Such technologies can also be used to measure progress and performance. In Liberia, for example, 150 data collectors equipped with phones map more than 7500 water points.

Smart technology has also been incorporated into standpipe management models to improve performance monitoring and regulation. This ensures that low-income communities that are not connected to a piped water supply to the home are able to enjoy reliable access to a fresh clean supply of water.

Incorporation of sensors and analytics in the agricultural sector ensures that crops are watered when needed, reducing the large volumes of water lost due to inefficient irrigation.

Role of ITU

ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Water Management was established by ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG) in June 2013. The focus group brings together academia and research institutes, municipalities, non-governmental organizations, ICT organizations, industries and other stakeholders to address standardization gaps and identify new standardization work items to be taken up by its parent group, ITU Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T) Study Group 5 (Environment and climate change).

ITU has already developed ICT standards for ubiquitous sensor networks and for the Internet of Things. These standards are relevant to smart water management. ITU is now working on further specific standards to ensure that water is managed in an efficient, equitable and ecologically sustainable manner.

ITU standardization will pave the way for the use of ICT in smart water management. The first step is to identify best practices, through targeted, integrated and coordinated research on the use of ICT in smart water management. Implementation of best practices is the next step.

ITU can provide assistance, within countries, to facilitate the development and implementation of ICT infrastructure for smart water management. As part of this, ITU should offer information and training sessions to develop capacity within countries for the implementation of ICT methods for smart water management. On a broader scale, ITU should use social networks to raise awareness of the benefits of using ICT in smart water management. ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Water Management is working along these lines in order to come closer to the overarching goal of ensuring sustainable water for all.