Water makes us smart

© Thomas Sennett / World Bank

In the progress towards global sustainability, the access to water and sanitation plays a double role: it is at the same time a tool and a goal of the solutions. From agriculture to the domestic supply, it provides essential information to attain SDG 6. To achieve it, governments and companies need to take into account the enormous existing asymmetries and ensure that no one is left behind.

We Are Water image

© Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Considering waste as a source of value and build resilience through diversity is an unstoppable trend that can be seen as the only solution to the enormous sustainability crisis we are experiencing.

One of the few positive aspects of the current climate and environmental crisis is that a growing percentage of the population is turning its gaze towards the current economic system and has become aware that, all around the world, there are geopolitical asymmetries that are one of the main obstacles for the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030.

The linear production model – extractive and outsourcing (obtaining resources and labor where it can achieve the highest financial benefits) – is fortunately in crisis. Its transformation into a circular system, whose main objective is not to deplete resources but to use renewable energies, approach waste as a source of value and built resilience through diversity, is an unstoppable trend that is seen as the only solution to the immense sustainability crisis we are experiencing. In this context, technology is a necessary tool, albeit not sufficient, to balance the scale.

We Are Water image

©Baltic SDGs

Real-time monitoring of the supply is the most efficient tool to reduce the rate of Non-Revenue Water (NRW), a worldwide scourge mainly due to the poor state of the installations.

Water does not deceive

In the water sector, which has historically been affected by the lack of respect for the environment, the consequences of this asymmetrical and disordered growth can be easily seen; it also shows in a very understandable way what role technology plays and will play in solving problems. Its figures are the best indicators of what is missing, of the mistakes made and of how we are evolving towards the SDGs; in particular, towards SDG 6, which is the foundation of the remaining 16.

The latest report of the Joint Monitoring Programme published by the WHO and UNICEF (Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: Special focus on inequalities, 2000-2017) is a good baseline for monitoring the geopolitical balance and international progress towards sustainability.

The figures, from 2017, with an estimated population on Earth of 7.485 billion inhabitants, are practically translatable to the present day: only 5.3 billion people have safe access to water; that is, 2.185 billion lack it. The most serious fact is that, of these, 435 million obtain water from untreated sources, while 144 million use surface water, obtaining it directly from rivers, ponds, etc. The report provides another surprising fact: eight out of ten people without basic services live in rural areas and almost half live in less developed countries.

The figures are more worrying when it comes to sanitation, at least quantitatively: 3.4 billion people use safe services, while among the remaining 4.085 billion who do not, the scourge of the 673 million who still defecate in the open persists.

On the other hand, UNESCO states that almost 80% of the wastewater discharged into the environment is untreated, originating an unbearable health burden for the poorest areas: polluted water causes five million deaths every year, and it is estimated that 800,000 of these are caused by these discharges.

These figures should force us to face reality, so that we can conveniently channel and monitor the technological evolution, focusing on closing the existing gaps that hinder the development of the more disadvantaged countries and effectively orienting their governance.

We Are Water image

©Fundación Vicente Ferrer

Subsidies for advanced irrigation technologies do not always save water at basin scale. Remote sensing technologies can adjust physical water accounts to support decision-making in the public interest.

Smart agriculture: beyond efficiency in irrigation

This is evident in agriculture, a sector in which reconciling increasing water demands with increasingly scarce availabilities becomes one of the greatest global challenges in terms of planning and governance; mainly in areas with endemic hydric stress, which are more threatened by climate change.

Irrigation accounts for 70% of the global water extractions, providing up to 40% of the food calories available in the planet. Achieving maximum efficiency in irrigation and the reduction of water consumption are the two totemic goals for humankind, which do not always move forward proportionally.

study by European, North American and Australian experts, published one year ago in the journal Science, shows that improvements in irrigation efficiency do not always save water at basin level for reallocation to other activities or to the environment, which is what would be appropriate for the overall sustainability of the system and the achievement of water security.

In many cases, subsidies to advanced irrigation technologies increase the irrigated area and intensify the crops; therefore, the total amount of water used by farmers increases instead of decreasing.

The study focuses on several basins in India, Morocco, USA, Spain and Australia, where the investments in drip irrigation systems and improved pipelines have not adequately taken into consideration their effects on recoverable return flows, aquifers and rivers, which against all expectations are decreasing. The study concludes that physical water accounts must be developed from farm to basin scale to clearly determine “who gets what and where” and to support decision-making in the public interest. This requires the measurement or estimation of all inputs, water consumption, evaporation rates, return flows to drains and groundwater and surface levels. In this case the remote sensing devices allow accurate data to be obtained for real-time accounting of existing water in the basin, which together with rainfall records, based on sensors connected via satellite, allow algorithms to be developed that use big data to control water at a reasonable cost.

In the face of bleak weather forecasts, it is necessary to make it easier for government to assume hydrological control and to plan resources better over the long term on the basis of real data on supply and demand. The smart monitoring systems and blockchain should also make it possible to design effective insurance to help farmers in times of drought, transferring the risk to the financial sector and relieving society.

All this at a scale that can be extended beyond the basin, nationally, and by means of the smart water grid, globally, which would be required to ensure the attainment of SDG 6.

How can these technologies be implemented on a global scale? Is it realistic to think that in the current state of geopolitical imbalance the poorest countries will be able to access smart water grids? We need to think they can and notable advances in the philosophy of key companies within the sector show a hopeful roadmap. The importance of the value of social responsibility and the adoption of circular systems towards sustainability make it possible to offer a source of wealth to the countries that are most affected by waste they do not treat. However, many of these countries need to eliminate the lack of transparency in governance and political corruption in order to attract the more than 100 billion dollars a year that the World Bank estimated needed to be invested in 2015 to attain goals 6.1 and 6.2 of access to water and sanitation by 2030.

We Are Water image

© Danilo Pinzon / World Bank

From the sources to points of consumption, through water-treatment plants, pipelines and sewage plants, operators use and will use even more real-time data to optimize costs and risks.

Waste and shortness

This is apparent in the difficulties to control the waste of water in developing countries. Non-Revenue Water (NRW) reaches over 40% of drinking water all around the world; this means around 45 million m3 every day, equivalent to 45,000 Olympic swimming pools; this is the water that is wasted in the supply process, due to leaks, breakages and errors. It is a quantity that could meet the needs of 200 million people. In some African and Asian countries, the rate of NRW exceeds 60%.

From the sources to points of consumption, through water-treatment plants, pipelines and sewage plants, operators use and will use even more real-time data to optimize costs and risks, advancing towards the smart water grids to save millions of cubic meters. Thus, in the industrially developed world, in which the pairing technology/investment is in relatively good health, the smart management of water, together with all other resources, appears as an essential tool to ensure the water safety of the communities against excessive consumption and waste.

But most of the poorest countries, where the 2.185 billion with no safe access to water and the 4.085 billion that lack adequate sanitation systems live, face the endemic problem of the lack of investment to confront the costly regeneration and the development of systems that are capable of providing universal coverage against urban growth, aging infrastructures and the worse forecasts of the climate crisis.

We Are Water image

© UN Photo/Kibae

Park All around the world, almost 80% of the wastewater is discharged into the environment without being treated, creating an intolerable health burden for the poorest regions.

Point-of-consumption monitoring, an awareness-raising tool

The 5.3 billion people that have safe access to water and the 3.4 billion that use safe sanitation services usually live in countries in which technology can greatly help to end the traditional confusion between the resource itself, a public good, and the supply, which is an industrial service and therefore subject to socioeconomic and technological variables. This confusion, mainly due to a lack of visibility in the supply and expenditure process, can be found both at household and business levels in the urban water cycle.

By means of home automation and Internet of Things (IoT), domestic users of the economically developed countries will have, in the short run, the capacity to manage all hired services, which will undoubtedly result into a greater awareness of the pairing supply/expenditure and its relation to water safety.

Having transparent and understandable information about the supply will enable governments and companies to approach the urban water cycle in a more inclusive way for citizens and to communicate the value of water in a better way. Users will be more aware of the risks, such as breakages, droughts and pollution, and they will know how much water is used or wasted and where; a context in which the delicate issue of the price of water will be approached with greater options of consensus. However, for those who live in the unhealthy slums of the fastest-growing emerging cities, the main goal is different: simply the access to a safe supply and sanitation to end diseases and attain a dignified life.

We Are Water image

© Yang Aijun / World Bank

Having transparent and understandable information about the supply will enable governments and companies to approach the urban water cycle in a more inclusive way for citizens and to communicate the value of water in a better way.

At this stage, no one denies that achieving the Agenda 2030 is difficult. The climate crisis situation and the lack of political consensus on environmental policies do not help (the latest news from the USA and Brazil, for instance, are not exactly hopeful). Hope lies mainly in the awareness of citizens, which is a rising value that translates into the flourishing of business initiatives that see an enormous potential for growth in the eradication of asymmetries. It would be convenient for institutions, companies and the global citizenship to focus their attention on the world of water both as an essential goal for mankind and as an indicator of the inclusive advance of technological development.

We Are Water image

©Mahmud Rahman / World Bank

The data on access to water and to sanitation should be indicators of the inclusive advance of technological development.