Wise Use of Water With Smart Technologies

Responding to a drought of historic severity, California has started pilot programs installing smart water meters that detect leaks and optimise the use of water at household level. At the same time, they are using sensors for smart irrigation control to reduce the water consumption of the State’s giant agribusiness.

This might seem too little too late as California experiences the worst drought since records began, but it points the way towards strategies to improve the efficiency of water management in the face of significant global challenges.

Climate change, population growth and increasing urbanization, are driving the ‘smart’ growth of cities that are resilient and regenerative. One of the principle forces behind this are the many Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) being applied throughout the water cycle.

Sensors and Big Data gathering allow real time monitoring of water quantity and quality, precision irrigation, smart leakage detection, enabling better planning and decision-making. Advanced Artificial Intelligence and Geographic Information Systems are transforming large-scale measurement; while internet and wireless technologies, intelligent decision support systems and other innovations are impacting across the water sector.

A Big Data revolution

The means for data collection, storage, retrieval and distribution have never been so advanced. Today the world gathers more data every ten minutes than existed in the whole of human history up until 2003. In the water sector Big Data is not only challenging traditional modelling techniques, it is creating a fundamental paradigm shift.

To see this in action we need to talk sensors. The use of sensors has enabled data collection 24/7. A leading example is Singapore’s “Project Neptune”, the real-time monitoring of coastal water quality. It uses a network of eight smart buoys, equipped with automatic wet chemistry laboratories, strategically deployed around Singapore’s coastline. Communicated wirelessly, data are curated, processed, archived and then blended with meteorological, hydrodynamic and water quality models giving a real-time forecast service. End-users can access, interrogate and visualize the data and model results through tablets and smart phones.

Sensors are increasingly applied in water supply networks and at household level. Water utilities are investing resources installing and maintaining sensors along their distribution networks. Sensors collect information for analysing trends, detecting abnormal conditions and identifying leakages in real time. Early detection and rapid response is combined with accurately identifying the location of problems. Commercial sensors are now available in peoples’ homes, alerting them to water leaks, as well as trends in humidity and temperature levels.

Radically improving agricultural performance

Around 70% of all freshwater is used for agriculture, and this is expanding due to increasing human needs. In California, the use of sensors in combination with GPS, mobile apps and software platforms installed on smartphone or tablet, are helping farmers to optimize irrigation. The sensors get information on soil data, which is sent to the cloud; the app/software platform calculates the amount of water necessary to produce the maximum yield in each irrigation zone.

These data are combined with data from weather stations and give information for farmers to decide when and where to irrigate and how much water to use, either to maximize growth or to avoid frost.

The volume and complexity of data is difficult to process using traditional data processing tools. This has triggered innovative new ways of storing, sharing, transferring, analysing and integrating data with models. A typical example is cloud-based solutions that receive the information, store, analyze and transfer them into advanced algorithms for processing. Real-time monitoring and detection of events and disasters enable faster responses with fewer false alarms.

Embracing the digital future

Despite the rapid development of real-time monitoring and data handling, there are still challenges. Continued research and development on the interactions human beings have with nature is crucial. The success of smart water management depends not only upon improving the ICT technology itself; it depends upon expert knowledge and the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, including from water, industry, urban planning and environment.

There is a clear need to extend the applications of available technologies. Smart water systems must share information globally and across sectors, real-time monitoring and analysis must be applied from basin to household level. Standards and indicators need to be developed for both the applicability and performance of ICT technologies after application, helping us understand the cost-benefit ratio of applying ICT solutions.

The use of fast growing mobile-based networks and apps allowing for rapid, reliable decisions on monitoring, acquiring and processing real-time data on water level, rainfall, runoff, water quality and leakage detection, needs to be promoted. However, to improve water efficiency and ensure water security and sustainability, smart systems need fit-for-purpose legal and economic frameworks.

The IWA is a key partner in a new European Commission project, WIDEST, which will contribute to these challenges. WIDEST will establish an interconnected ICT for Water community to capitalize on European Union-funded activities in this area. The project is supported by a consortium of institutions with proven track records and extensive expertise in different facets of ICT for water research.

We have the data, advanced technologies and we have the expertise, such as the IWA/IAHR/IAHS Hydroinformatics Specialist Group who are dealing smart applications of ICT to water resources, hydraulics or hydrology. It is now up to all of us to use technologies and data wisely and to work together to better inform operational, maintenance and planning decisions in water management.

Hong Li

Asia and Oceania Director
Hong has been with IWA since 2009 and currently is the Regional Director for Asia & Oceania. She previously headed IWA’s Science, Practice and Policy agenda. Hong has vast experiences working with water leaders world-wide (e.g. through Spec... Read full biography