It's time to think digital on water use

New digital technologies such as smart meters, data-led irrigation systems, leak detectors and artificial intelligence for forecasting could cut the world's water use – and associated carbon emissions – dramatically. So why aren't we using them?

Home life sustainability It's time to think digital on water use

The visible effects of the world's excessive water use are well known – things like the salination and pollution of lakes and rivers, as well as emerging shortages due to falling water-tables. Global water use has increased at least six-fold over the past century, according to the UN, and continues to rise year-on-year. But there is another cost to water that isn't so widely acknowledged and which is counted in carbon emissions.

Every drop of water has an energy cost embedded in it. Increasing water use consumes energy and increasing energy use drives global warming. Raising water from underground sources, purifying it, desalinating it, distributing it for irrigation or household or business use, treating and cleaning it, all use energy, mostly from fossil fuels, with side-effects that we know only too well. Globally, the industry accounts for around 4 per cent of total electricity consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. On current trends that is set to double by 2040.

Yet the readily available digital technologies that could cut excessive water usage and its associated energy cost almost overnight are not being used by the organisations that count. This is for a host of reasons, according to the US Drought Information System, including habit and lack of awareness, as well as a feeling that the technology is intimidating. The time has come to change that.

Follow the data

There is nothing mysterious or futuristic about the digital technology that could remedy this pattern of water over-use. It is all in the here-and-now, ready to deploy and relatively cheap. And a lot of it revolves around the intelligent use of data.

For example, the UN estimates that worldwide more than 45 million cubic metres of water are lost every day due to leaky infrastructure in towns, offices and factories, and on farms. Most of these leaks are underground or in remote locations and never get addressed because they are unseen. Yet there is a new generation of remote sensors that can detect tiny vibrations caused by distant leaks and that use low-power ‘narrowband' communication frequencies to collate this data. Some countries like the UK are starting to deploy such Internet of Things sensors – but many are not, even though they are cheap and easy to install.

Then there is irrigation for agriculture, a notoriously wasteful use of water. A World Economic Forum article describes how vast waste occurs because flows are not matched to the climate conditions on the ground. Smart water meters linked to satellite data can match irrigation precisely to needs and so allocate water efficiently.

Improve water management

Artificial intelligence can also be set to work managing water. In the US, several government agencies have created a system they call ‘forecast informed reservoir operations', in which AI forecasts water demand across a region to prevent avoidable shortages and the use of alternative, energy-intensive sources.

After all, water connects to everything. It is fundamental to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2020 ranked water crises as one of the top five risks by severity of impact over the next 10 years. That means that better water management through lower consumption and less waste is something that should be at the top of the agenda for both policy-makers and businesses. It is something that would show up immediately as a credit on the ESG scorecard of any organisation.

In the wake of the Covid pandemic there is a new drive for better ways of doing things, whether in business or in life. Bringing together new technology and the age-old challenge of water supply could be a good place to start.