Feature Story

Saving Water: Drop for Drop, Bit for Byte

Under siege from overpopulation and climate change, water supplies demand digital solutions.

“You can live without energy or power,” said Amir Peleg of the water-industry software company TaKaDu. “Look at what happened when New York had a blackout. Nine months later there was a baby boom. But try living for 24 hours without water.”

To ensure that no one goes without fresh water for any stretch of time, Israel-based 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.

According to the World Health Organization, 844 million people live without clean drinking water. Population surges, mass migrations, and climate change — along with aging, leaking, and inefficient water infrastructures — only make the situation worse.

“When they think of the problem of fresh drinkable water on the planet, people think of that Peace Corp village on the hill,” said Annie Feighery, CEO of mWater, which offers an open-sourced platform for managing water-related data. “Certainly, rural water supply continues to be its own crisis, but right now we’re talking about mega-cities, a massive movement from urban to rural areas.”

In a perfect world, each of those cities would have a gleaming, high-tech, digitized water infrastructure. But 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

“The water sector is the number one energy consumer in most countries in the western world,” Peleg said. “If you consume tons of energy just 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.”

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.

“Most of the pipes in the U.S. were put in right after World War II,” said Leo T. Kenny, senior scientist and technologist for Planet Singular, which creates IoT solutions for public infrastructure. “Unfortunately, a lot of it is failing at the same time.”

The situation’s not much better abroad.

“It’s a big problem first off knowing when something is broken,” said 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. “And where some of the technology can play a part is sending out a notice to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working, come look at it.’ ”

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 prevent the information from reaching the right people, leaving leaks unattended for weeks or months.

Automated IoT systems promise to be a game-changer.

“If you were continually monitoring it,” Menon said, “and if you had an alert system that told you instantaneously that there is a leak you’re more likely to save water and actually reduce cost.”

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.

“If you had predictive analytics,” Menon said, “with digital, embedded sensors into the water pipes and other alternative ways of detecting it, you can even predict if there’s going to be a leak.”

Of course, IoT projects are complex and require coordination between political leaders, the community, and the right technology vendors. And technology has to be aligned with specific needs and solutions from the start, as Kenny warned.

“What are the objectives?” he asked, “There’s a huge opportunity for IoT technologies, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in the ‘what’ and not think about the ‘how’ of what you’re trying to achieve.”IoT sensors must be developed for specific water-monitoring needs, whether to measure pressure, purity, salt content from rising sea levels, or pipe corrosion.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.

“This relates to future needs for sensors,” he said. “They’re not all created equal. Some require a lot more development than others. So you need to define what those needs are. What kind of sensors do you really need? How many of them?”

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.

“I think that could be the future,” Wandolowski said, “not having to send out a whole staff to teach someone how to fix a pipe system or a well.”

For many water utilities and 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 IoT, mWater is, for now, more concerned with making better use of human surveys on pipes, water pressure, and sanitation.

“Surveys for many countries, are how work gets done,” she said. “The furthest reach out from the government is often the health worker or the water manager that is going house to house.”

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.

“Just moving simple surveys from paper to digital has been really transformative,” Feighery said. “And then, based on relational databases, we can turn these surveys into platforms that talk to each other. So, the water utility surveys can then to communicate to the rural water surveys, and to the households, and to the health workers.”

In the developing world, especially, attaining fresh water can be a constant struggle. Applying technology to lessen that struggle can have unexpected benefits.

“If we make water easier to access in these places it opens up new life opportunities,” said Wandolowski. “Unfortunately, it’s generally women who take most of their mornings or evenings in going to get water. If you think about all of the other things that women and girls could be doing — they could be in school, they could be starting businesses.”

That happens in places like India and Africa, he added, but also in Flint, Mich., where water is still trucked into neighborhoods following the health crisis in 2016.

As pressing as the situation is many parts of the world, human resistance remains a barrier.

“In most countries that I travel to,” Peleg said, “the awareness of how critical water is, is not there. From the governments, from the regulators, from the water utilities and also from the customers. For me, that’s the biggest challenge, to raise the agenda of water. Then you can talk about change in the infrastructure and measurement and software and IoT.”

“Technology is one set of issues,” added Menon, “and the other is cultural and people.”

But as Kenny said, taking water for granted is no longer an option.

“I think the luxury we’ve had for many centuries of reacting to stuff is gone,” he stressed. “And of course the ironic part is that we have all the tools we need to do it. It’s a question of organizing correctly to manage ‘the how’ of it.”

Wandolowski agrees. But he’s heartened by the rise of digital solutions.

“It seems like every other day,” he said, “I get an email from someone talking about a new technology, and I think it’s wonderful that companies and organizations are seeing opportunities and acting on them.”

Peleg, too, sees a future of important innovations in the water sector — by necessity.

“I'm quite optimistic about the future,” Peleg concluded, “because I think that the reality will force all of us to work hand in hand and convince utilities to invest in better data and better comms, and better IoT.”