Plugging the Water Scarcity Gap with IoT & AI
While technology is sometimes painted as impacting society and the environment in negative ways, it’s clear to me as a tech enthusiast that digital technologies are significantly contributing to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on a global scale.
The United Nations adopted the SDGs in 2015 as a universal call to action to ensure that everyone can equally enjoy prosperity in all aspects of life, including education, healthcare, mobility, transportation, economy, clean energy, and access to clean water and sanitation.
In this post, I take a closer look at how technology is helping to tackle one of today’s world most pressing challenges: water scarcity and its associated impact on society, economy, health, energy, environment, and even on our cultural heritage.
What is the world water crisis?
Water scarcity is an increasing problem on every continent. According to UN-Water 2021, almost 2 billion people – 26% of the world’s population – still lack uncontaminated drinking water services on-premises and on-demand. Meanwhile, the UN also estimates that water consumption will increase globally by up to 30% by 2050, leading to an even greater supply gap for countries already facing water stress.
To meet the future demand for water, efficient water management, the digital transformation of utilities, and reducing water loss are the main areas of focus.
Non-Revenue Water (NRW)
Water loss in distribution networks remain one of the major challenges nations face, particularly in urban areas.
Today, 25-50% of all distributed water globally is NRW, i.e., lost or never invoiced. This occurs for a variety of reasons, including leaks from deteriorated pipes, aging infrastructure, over-population, illegal connections, inaccurate billing systems, or the lack of a modern water management system.
The global volume of NRW is estimated to be over 100 billion cubic meters per year, equating to an annual monetary value worth tens of billion US dollars. Not only does this represent an enormous financial burden on national economies, but it also has significant environmental consequences on health, society, and preserving cultural heritage.
If the world’s volume of NRW is reduced by just one third, it’s estimated that the savings would be sufficient to supply 800 million people with water.
At the regional level, the estimated volume of NRW in the Middle East and Northern Arica region reaches 41 million cubic meters per day, equivalent to an annual cost/value of US$4 billion. The NRW levels in emerging economies are even higher, directly affecting the capacity of utility administrations to become financially viable and fund necessary service expansions, especially for the poor.
Other negative impacts of water loss and NRW
Daily-life and mobility: When a water leak or sudden burst of pressure that causes a water pipeline break to occur, these unexpected events cause huge disturbances to daily life, including response dispach, road closures, traffic gridlock, power outages, and restricting people’s ability to go about their daily lives.
Energy: As water supply infrastructure consumes energy through water treatment and pumping equipment, leaked water elevates water-pumping requirements, which in turn increases carbon emissions as leakages are estimated to increase energy consumption by 10% to 30%.
Health: Water leaks also impact health, as leaking water pipes can introduce potentially harmful contaminants into drinking water. New research has shown that a significant pressure drop in a damaged section of pipe can suck in polluted water surrounding the pipe through the affected area.
Social: As variations in water pressure in urban distribution networks exist, people receive different pressure levels in their water supply depending on where they live. Many suffer from very weak water pressure in their homes, which affects daily activities and quality of life.
Impact on archeological and historic sites
Increases in leaked water in turn increase the level of underground water, which severely and negatively impacts archeological sites.
A study published on the impact of groundwater (and agricultural expansion) on archaeological sites in Luxor, Egypt cites field observations that reveal differing degrees of damage, including the disintegration of sandstone in buildings, a loss of the surface layer of sandstone that carried wall paintings and text, discoloration, salt crystallization in columns and walls, and the decreased durability of monuments made of sandstone.
The adoption of AI and IOT in the water sector
With advancements in IoT and AI capabilities, intelligent water management solutions are now benefiting the water sector.
A pilot project is demonstrating the value of technologies. A detailed water hydraulic model, which shows the water pressures in city pipelines, is integrated into an AI-based application that monitors and measures the water pressure in selected points underground, known as DMA (District Metered Area), across the city pipeline network.
Advanced IoT-based data loggers have been installed in DMA points where pressure and flow data are transmitted through Low Power Cellular-based Wireless (LPCW) technology, which is crucial for automating data loggers and enabling multiple years of battery life when installed deep underground at DMA points.
In normal conditions, traditional wireless cellular technology coverage can’t perform at that depth.
AI performs data analysis to quickly identify incidents, detect potential problems, and generate real-time alerts that enable utilities operations to re-adjust water pressure accordingly and avoid pipeline network problems reaching alarming levels.
The integrated geoinformation system (GIS) works with the water hydraulic AI-based model to immediately identify the location of potential incidents.
Economic, energy & social benefits in smart cities
Economic: By delivering cutting edge integrated AI & IoT technologies, NRW smart solutions have the potential to reduce NRW due to water network accidents by 20-50%, reduce pumping electricity bills by 10-20%,
Social: re-adjusting the water pressure in the city pipelines will help water distribution equity, so all people can receive the same level of water pressure. The solution also ensures a continuous supply of water with adequate pressure and reduces the negative impacts of water leaks on traffic, roads, and infrastructure.
Contribution to SDGs
Addressing water leakage problems positively contribute to the development for our society, culture, health, heritage, economies, and the environment. Solving key issues such as the water crisis as part of SDG 6 also contributes towards the success of other SDGs. SDG 6 is linked with other goals, such as 11.3, enhancing inclusive and sustainable urbanization, 3.9 improving healthcare combating water related diseases, 8.4 Enhance Global resources efficiency, and 8.2 improving economic productivity.
Equally important, there is priceless value in lowering underground water levels caused by water leaks by saving archeology and heritage sites from deterioration, as per SDG 11.4: protect the worlds cultural and natural heritage.
No one should be left behind in the digital world
Technology is already making a difference all over the world, connecting the unconnected, empowering underserved communities, and protecting the planet.
Aligned with the SDGs, Huawei’s TECH4ALL initiative, for example, is a universal call for promoting global collaboration, innovative thinking, and creating ecosystems to make digital technologies affordable and scalable. Technology goes hand-in hand with sustainable development goals of empowering every person, organization, and society as a whole to benefit from and go farther together to build a fully inclusive digital society.
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.