Towards smarter water management

| 31/03/2011 | 0 Comments

Intelligent water systems can play a significant role in meeting the water needs of a growing world population By Dr Cameron Brooks

Water is an essential, but increasingly stressed resource that requires better management in order to sustain life and economic development throughout this century and beyond. The only water supply the planet will ever have needs help now.

Dr Cameron Brooks

Today, one in five people lack access to safe drinking water, and some municipalities lose an alarming amount of precious water—up to 50%—through leaky infrastructure. In addition to that, human demand for water is expected to increase six-fold in the next 50 years. In fact, in just the last 100 years, global water usage has increased at twice the rate of population growth.

Many cities around the world are dealing with drought, water shortage, and pollution…and are concerned about the future of their water supply. We are facing a water crisis today. Water infrastructure is three times more expensive to build and maintain than electricity infrastructure. Much of it runs underground, out of sight of the average consumer. But neglecting it can be even more costly.

A recent study conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value indicates water issues are becoming increasing important to businesses and governments. According to the study, which surveyed more than 100 public and private sector executives, 71% expect water to create more cost and complexity over the next five years. Yet, 63% said they lack systems needed to deal with the water issues they currently face.

This year’s World Water Day on March 22, organised through the United Nations, aptly highlights the need to improve water management in cities, which are expanding faster than their infrastructures can adapt.

But the availability of safe water is not only an issue for the longer term. In addition to ensuring safe drinking water, new management techniques are needed to reduce excessive or wasteful use.

Technology to the rescue

According to the United Nations, 70% of all freshwater is used to irrigate crops. In communities where treatment systems exist, an estimated 20% of the water supply is lost through leaky infrastructure. Ninety-five percent of cities around the world dump raw sewage into their waters, frequently when treatment systems are inadequate or become overwhelmed.

We can and must do a better job managing our finite water resources. New, more effective ways to manage water, its quality, and the impact of floods and droughts need to be implemented now to ensure that life and economic prosperity can be sustained over the coming decades. There are three main issues pertaining to sustainable water resources: availability, quality and the amount of energy required to ensure safe water.

Advanced technology tools are now available to analyse the quality of water, and the effectiveness of treatment and distribution infrastructures. Knowledge developed through this type of analysis can be use to help curtail pollution and stem inefficiencies.

These new advancements in technology can help create more intelligent water systems, which will benefit our communities and our environment over the next century.

Cities will need smarter water systems to reduce water inefficiencies, prevent runoff pollution, purify water to make it drinkable, and more. Also, advanced water purification technologies will help cities recycle and reuse water locally, reducing the amount of energy used to transport water. Interactive meters and sensors could be integrated into water and energy systems, providing real-time, accurate information about water consumption to enable better decisions about how and when we use this valuable resource.

Leak detection and preventative maintenance can substantially reduce the cost of maintaining an aging water infrastructure. It used to be that leaks and breaks were identified only after water poured out of pipes and into the streets. But new technology has given water managers the ability to identify and repair small leaks before they become big problems.

There are millions of miles of water pipes around the world, and a surprising fraction of these are more than 100 years old. But with a thoughtful combination of planning and new technology, maintenance and repair of water infrastructure could take a quantum leap. And, ultimately, smarter systems for single, integrated electricity and water utility management will enable the most efficient conservation of these two resources.

In fact, this is already beginning to happen:

A buoy in Galway Bay, Ireland, uses sensors in the ocean to collect data on water quality and sea conditions. The SmartBay system, developed by IBM and the Marine Institute of Ireland, provides real-time information to scientists, commercial fishermen, environmental monitoring agencies and the general public. Photo Courtesy: Marine Institute of Ireland

  • For example, IBM is working with the city of Shenyang, China, to apply water management solutions from IBM Research to analyse the immense amount of data that is produced from the city’s water systems, in order to gain real-time understanding about water quality, energy utilised for water management, and more. Through this analysis, the city will be able to make more proactive decisions about water, cut down on expense and energy-usage related to water management, and maintain high water quality to provide the best possible service to citizens.
  • IBM is working with the city of San Francisco, California, to help reduce pollution in the water that surrounds the city on three sides — the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The city is using IBM software for smarter management of its 1,000 miles of sewer system and three treatment facilities.
  • A city in Southern California, where drought is all too common, is using IBM software to manage a leading edge sewage treatment plant. Here, sewage runs through an advanced filtration system that removes bacteria, viruses, carcinogens, hormones, chemicals, toxic heavy metals, fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals to provide a reliable source of locally controlled water that will help drought-proof the region. And because the water doesn’t have to be transported, the energy savings are significant.
  • In Malta, IBM is collaborating to build a nationwide system that will contain 250,000 interactive energy and water meters and thousands of sensors on both the energy grid and the water infrastructure to enable proactive management that anticipates problems, and optimises water and energy supply together. The system will also provide Maltese citizens with better information on water and energy consumption, enabling them to make better decisions about how and when they use resources.
  • In New York, the Hudson River and its estuary system has a technology-based monitoring and forecasting network designed to control pollution and harmful runoff.
  • The use of sensor technologies along with IBM analytical tools, such as those in place in Ireland, Amsterdam and New York, provides water quality data that can be used by water authorities, public health and environmental agencies.

Indeed, real time monitoring is the first step in the development of smarter water management systems that can meet the water needs of a growing world population. Modern infrastructures that can provide safe water not only benefit the health and well-being of people but, also help conserve valuable resources, protect the environment and sustain economic viability. For sure, the measure of a thriving community in the 21st century is how well it uses vital resources, such as water, and maintains a high-quality living environment for its residents.

(The author is Director, Smarter Water Management, IBM Big Green Innovations)

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Category: Features, Water

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