Feature Story

Digital Solutions for a Thirsty Planet

Experts weigh in on how digital transformation is creating clean water in some of the world’s most challenging places.

In this podcast, Connected Futures’ executive editor Kevin Delaney speaks with:

Amir Peleg, founder and CEO, TaKaDu

Annie Feighery, CEO, mWater

Leo T. Kenny, senior scientist and technologist, Planet Singular

Kevin Wandolowski, senior manager of monitoring and evaluation, Water for People

Anil Menon, global president of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities group

Read more in the article Saving Water: Drip for Drip, Bit for Byte.

Transcript ▼

Kevin Delaney: There’s nothing more fundamental to life than water. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely‑managed water supplies. Population surges, mass migrations, and climate change ‑‑ along with aging, leaking, and inefficient water infrastructures ‑‑ promise to make the situation worse, both in the developing and developed worlds.

Hi, this is Kevin Delaney, Executive Editor and Senior Writer of Connected Futures. I spoke with some of the leading innovators bringing data and network solutions to water challenges, starting with Amir Peleg of the Israeli startup, TaKaDu.

Amir Peleg: We need to be more aware of how critical water supply is to our houses and to our daily use. The best example is that whenever I’m giving lectures and speeches about what TaKaDu is ‑‑ or about the global water sector, etc. ‑‑ I always try to tell people that they could live without energy or without power.

Look what happened in New York a couple of years ago. There was this blackout, and nine months later you had the baby boom. But just try to live just 24 hours at your home without running water in your tap.

Kevin Delaney: To ensure that no one goes without fresh water for any stretch of time, TaKaDu joins a growing number of innovators applying digital technologies to the problem ‑‑ that includes everything from Internet of Things sensors and advanced analytics, to predictive maintenance and virtual reality ‑‑ but the challenges are steep.

Here’s Annie Feighery of mWater, which offers an open source platform for managing water‑related data in the developing world.

Annie Feighery: Certainly, urbanization is the newest force that everyone is adapting to. I think everyone ‑‑ when they think of the problem of fresh drinkable water on the planet ‑‑ they think of that Peace Corps village on the hill. Right now, we’re talking about megacities, a massive movement from urban to rural areas. Certainly, rural water supply continues to be its own crisis that needs very specific solutions.

The aid organizations, the governments, the stakeholders involved in this, are all working very fast to adapt their plans and their strategies to megacities and the urban water supply. Kevin Delaney: In a perfect world, each of those cities would have a gleaming, high tech, digitized water infrastructure. The real‑world goal is better visibility into existing highly strained water systems.

Water losses from leaking pipes, for example, approach 50 percent in some cities. They also introduce contaminants that contribute to the 3.4 million deaths each year from water and sanitation related causes, while further straining pipes and other machinery. Here’s Amir Peleg. Amir Peleg: Just on the diversion side, leakage is obviously an important element which is non‑revenue water or water wastage or…You can call it in many names. The numbers are frightening.

Sometimes they could get to the 50 percent. If it’s at that level, you don’t really know if it’s 40 or 60 even. The contamination, obviously, is a major thing. I would even link it to other elements like energy. The water sector, the water distribution element, is the number one energy consumer in most countries in the Western world.

If you consume tons of energy just to push your water to increase the pressure to push it to your tap, and you’re wasting 25 percent or 50 percent, you just wasted a lot of energy.

Kevin Delaney: In the Internet of Things, every leak counts. The first step is zeroing in on the aging underground labyrinths of pipes and pumps to pinpoint even small leaks. That’s where Internet of Things technologies and fast data analytics can play a key role.

Here’s Leo T. Kenny, Senior Scientist and Technologist for Planet Singular, which creates IoT solutions for public infrastructure.

Leo T. Kenny: The emerging technologies of which we’ve mentioned a number of them, I think to be able to identify and prioritize where the key needs are, where are the issues, you’re not…Most of the pipes in the US, to my understanding, is that a lot of them were put in right after World War II ‑‑ maybe the quality wasn’t the best ‑‑ and so, unfortunately, a lot of it’s failing at the same time.

Kevin Delaney: The situation’s not much better abroad. Here’s Kevin Wandolowski of Water For People, a nonprofit international development organization that has adopted a digital system called FLOW to speed data processing and sharing.

Kevin Wandolowski: It’s a big problem. First off, knowing when something’s broken. That’s where some of that technology could play a part…sending out a notice to someone say, “Hey, this isn’t working. Come look at it.” As I said, that technology is sort of in its infancy right now. What we’re trying to do is get that information to the right people in a really short amount of time so that they’re able to keep the amount of time where people don’t have access to clean and reliable water down.

Kevin Delaney: Anil Menon, Global President of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities group, stressed that even when data collection systems are in place, network and processing challenges can prevent the information from reaching the right people, leaving leaks unattended for weeks or months. He’s quick to add that automated IoT systems promise to be a game changer.

Anil Menon: Think about the amount of water that is wasted because of leaks ‑‑ that is detected very sporadically ‑‑ and after there has been a lot of waste, that’s when you detect it. On the other hand, if you were continually monitoring it and if you had an alert system that gave you instantaneously that there is a leak, you’re more likely to save water and actually reduce costs.

Kevin Delaney: The next step Menon added is to identify weaknesses before leaks occur. That demands solid real‑time data on the health of pipes and systems combined with advanced analytics and networking power. The key is to process data at the edge of the network where sensors live, rather than backhauling it and storing it in a data center.

Anil Menon: Alternatively, and more significant than that, if you even had predictive analytics that sort of had digital embedded sensors into the water pipes, and other alternative ways of detecting it, you can even predict if there is going to be a leak. The other thing is, on communication, if you have edge computing…We have fog and edge computing.

The moment you have that, you don’t have to be sending all the data all the time because you don’t have leaks all the time. You only send when there is. You can do the compute at the edge. Then, when there is an anomaly that looks consistent, you can then send that information based on policy.

Kevin Delaney: Of course, Internet of Things projects are highly complex and require a coordination among political leaders, the community, and the right technology vendors. As Leo Kenny warned, the technology has to be aligned with specific needs and solutions right from the start.

Leo T. Kenny: With a limited amount of resources ‑‑ as most communities have ‑‑ you want to know what the key priorities are, right? In order to do that…That’s the value of looking, long‑term, what are the objectives. How do you take a systems integration approach to make sure that you’re working on the right things, because you can’t do everything.

Kevin Delaney: For example, Kenny added that IoT sensors must be developed for specific water monitoring needs whether to measure pressure, purity, salt content from rising sea levels, pipe corrosion, and so on.

Leo T. Kenny: Again, this relates to future needs for sensors. They’re not all created equal, some require a lot more engineering than others. You need to define what those needs are in the future so that you can have the researchers and the academics working on the right capabilities for the future. If you need…You talk about quality of drinking water, what kind of sensors do you really need? How many of them?

There’s some work that needs to be done in the sensor community to develop low cost viable sensors. Without that holistic look, and that framework to define what’s needed, you end up with a lot of piecemeal activities and pilot projects that don’t fit together.

Kevin Delaney: Of course, any time new endpoints and sensors are introduced, security is a critical factor, especially for potential cyber targets like water utilities. Here’s Cisco’s Anil Menon.

Anil Menon: As you add more and more things to the network and more of those things have sensors ‑‑ whether they’re water sensors, water meters, and traffic, and all the others ‑‑ the kind of entry points increases.

Security, and having a secure network, increases tremendously when you are connecting vital things ‑‑ like health care systems, or water systems, or lighting systems and all the other utility systems ‑‑ into the grid. The question is, how do we protect it? Which is where we are investing, and which is why Cisco is focusing more and more on cybersecurity and all the related issues.

I think the key here, for utility companies, and the key for cities, is to recognize that your weakest link is your strongest link. It’s no use, if you focus on one part of the system and put in a system that has got a lot of security built into it and then you go for the cheapest lowest alternative on some other aspect which exposes you and makes you vulnerable.

Kevin Delaney: Beyond pipes and pumps, humans are the critical factor. Despite all the excitement around automated technologies, some of the greatest value comes from empowering people on the front lines of water systems.

This is consistent with a recent Cisco study on digital cities in which workforce transformation, using digital tools to increase collaboration and share real‑time insights with city workers, promised higher economic impact than any other use case. Virtual reality is one example. This emerging technology could give remote experts a precise view of real‑time challenges faced by workers in the field, or be used to train water workers faster and more efficiently.

Here’s Kevin Wandolowski.

Kevin Wandolowski: VR, and headsets for your phones and things like that, could be used as a way to market or represent what’s happening in different places. I think that in the States, as well as Europe, sometimes it’s hard to know what other people deal with in terms of their day‑to‑day.

Sort of, it’s a way to represent someone else’s experience, let somebody else walk in a different person’s shoes. Someone in Kamwenge, Uganda, which is one of our districts, going through and having someone here in the States in Minnesota or Chicago put on a VR headset and be able to see what they see and do what they do, and see really how time‑consuming it is to have to go get water that way.

It was actually brought up recently, using those types of VR‑type software as training for water workers as well. Sort of, putting up a system and having them work with tools and things, but doing it in virtual reality. Which, I think, is a wonderful idea. It’s something that we’re looking into. I think that could be the future, just using it for training.

Not having to send out a whole staff to teach someone how to fix a pipe system or a well, or anything like that where you can use virtual reality.

Kevin Delaney: For many water utilities in communities, however, the short‑term goal is better use of the water resources at hand. Often, that means taking data collected manually by human workers and ensuring that it does not die a slow death in backward paper‑based bureaucracies.

As excited as Annie Feighery is about Internet of Things technologies, mWater is, for now, more concerned with making better use of human surveys on pipes, water pressure, and sanitation.

Annie Feighery: People don’t often appreciate what a survey is. Surveys, for many countries, are the engine of governance, surveys are how the work gets done. The furthest reach out from the government is often the health worker or the water manager that is going house to house running surveys on a regular basis.

If they’re a health worker the survey might be, “Is there a handwashing area available in the home? Is there adequate water? Is the water being stored safely?” They conduct the survey, they hand that survey to their supervisor, their supervisor creates a survey summarizing all the surveys, and hands it on up the ladder. This is how governments are running.

Kevin Delaney: With a user base that spans 143 countries, mWater enables surveys to be taken on tablets and phones instead of paper, while sharing data among the people who need it most.

Annie Feighery: Just moving the simple survey from paper to digital has been really transformative. Then, based on really great advances in relational databases, we can turn these surveys into platforms that talk to each other. Then, the water utilities surveys can also be relevant— using the same platform to communicate to the rural water surveys, and in households, and to the healthcare worker surveys.

Suddenly, the government has a way for everyone to be communicating in surveys without necessarily communicating in person in the real world.

Kevin Delaney: In the developing world especially, attaining fresh water can be a constant struggle. Applying technology to lessen that struggle can have unexpected benefits, as Kevin Wandolowski points out.

Kevin Delaney: It’s, unfortunately, generally women who spend most of their mornings and evenings going to get water. I think, that if you think about all the things that women and girls could be doing if they weren’t having to do that ‑‑ they could be in school, they could be starting businesses.

I think a lot of what we do is to bring that support to those people that need it. I think it affects people in different ways, and I think that if we make water easier to access in these places, it opens up new life opportunities.

Kevin Delaney: That’s true in places like India and Africa, Wandolowski added, but also in Flint, Michigan, where water is still trucked into neighborhoods following the health crisis in 2016.

Kevin Wandolowski: It is really life changing if you lose water for a week. I think of Flint. If you don’t have water for, you know, who knows how long it’s been since they’ve had the ability to get clean water that they didn’t have to get from a truck that the government’s bringing in.

Kevin Delaney: Whether in India, Africa, or Flint, Michigan, the situation for water supplies is dire, indeed. One of the biggest barriers to finding solutions remains human resistance. Here’s Amir Peleg, of TaKaDu.

Amir Peleg: In a way, the biggest shock I had is that in most countries that I travel to, you see that still the awareness of how critical water is, is not there ‑‑ from the government, from the regulators, from the water utilities, and also from the consumer side, from the customers.

For me that’s the biggest challenge, to raise the agenda of water. Then you can talk about changing infrastructure and measurement, and software, and IOT and all the rest. That’s my take. It’s the peoples factor.

Kevin Delaney: Cisco’s Anil Menon agreed.

Anil Menon: Technology is one set of issues. Then the other is cultural and people. Kevin Delaney: As Leo Kenny stressed, however, taking water for granted will no longer be an option.

Leo T. Kenny: This is a fundamental resource that not only affects us but affects business growth, affects the natural ecosystem, it’s about as basic as you get in terms of basic existence. I think it’s important to think about it and not take it for granted.

That’s the, what I think, the bottom line is. That, given, especially the challenges of changes in climate, they’re beyond doing things that can mitigate that. There’s also, you have to provide communities with some strategies for being proactively resilient. Otherwise, you have situations where you have flooding, and a lack of water, and an impact to agriculture.

The costs are…It’s either, pay me now or pay me later. I think the luxury we’ve had for many centuries has, you know, reacting to stuff is gone. Of course the ironic part is that we have all the tools we need to do it, it’s a question of whether we organize correctly and manage the, “How?”

Kevin Delaney: A freshwater future…Kevin Wandolowski agrees, but he’s heartened by the rise of digital solutions.

Kevin Wandolowski: It seems like every other day I get an email from somebody talking about a new technology for something or other, and I think that’s wonderful, that there’s companies and organizations out there that are seeing opportunities and acting on them.

Kevin Delaney: Amir Peleg, too, sees a future of important innovations in the water sector, by necessity, he stresses.

Amir Peleg: I’m actually quite optimistic, [laughs] I must say, even though we have drawn on a lot of negatives in this call. I’m quite optimistic about the future because I think that the reality will basically force all of us to work hand in hand ‑‑ like for me and Cisco to work together and convince some utilities to invest in better data, and better comm, and better IoT ‑‑ so I’m quite optimistic.

I think the role of technology will play more and more importantly, but it depends on the people and their processes. When you have some generation changes ‑‑ with less water engineers and more statisticians and more industrial engineers ‑‑ you’ll see that the change will happen by itself because they will not accept the paradigm of, firefighting. We’re not used anymore to firefighting.

Look at the world surrounding us, everywhere ‑‑ Africa, India, China, and the US ‑‑ they all use the same iPad, the same iPhone, the same apps. Everything is predictable. Your advertisement on your mobile phone is using analytics in order to know which advertisement to plug. There is no reason why the same things, the same notions and concepts, will apply in water.

Amir Peleg: It’s just a matter that it takes some time because everything here is slow, infrastructure is heavy. You cannot, just by a click of a button, change all the pipes underground. It’s not like switching from 3G to 4G, you have to wait those years and it’s a heavy infrastructure.

Amir Peleg: It will happen, it will just take that time period, of 10‑20 years, to become way more efficient.

Kevin Delaney: This is Kevin Delaney for Connected Futures; thanks to my very insightful guests. Here’s hoping that your water stays fresh and readily available with the help of digital technologies.