Water under threat: new technology is the answer

Emerging technologies have the potential to supply previously unobtainable data and provide solutions to global water shortages 

Earlier this year, Cape Town came within a few drops of Day Zero when the taps are turned off. A serious drought was only just averted. This year, already the fourth hottest ever, is not a one off. Europe’s heatwave and drought have decimated crops, and could lead to spikes in food prices; California has been up in flames again, while Japan saw dozens of deaths from sweltering heat.

“This is the new norm,” explains Alex Mung, head of Water Initiative at the World Economic Forum (WEF). “We’re seeing the impacts of drought and abnormally hot temperatures around the world. We have seen such scenarios before in São Paulo and this year in Sydney where water reached record lows, raising urgent questions about the security of the city’s water supply.”

Water has ranked in the top five risks for seven consecutive years in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report. And if you look at the headline threats to humanity and the planet over the next decade, as pinpointed by 1,000 experts, all but one are linked to water. These include extreme weather, natural and man-made disasters, climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse.

These events destroy lives and livelihoods, and water is at the heart of the issue.

Greater value needs to be placed on water

“Water insecurity will continue to cause ripple effects across global supply chains from manufacturing to agriculture, it will strain geopolitical ties and it will place untold pressure on the world’s poorest populations,” warns Mr Mung. “The resilience of our society, both in terms of economic growth and human security, must be addressed through a water lens.”

While other global risks have peaked and subsided, water has stubbornly remained. It is the ultimate public goods challenge, complex and inter-connected across many aspects of society.

Tackling the issue requires collaborative, cross-sector solutions and a shift by all stakeholders to place a higher value on water.

“Let’s face it, water is chronically undervalued and, in some cases, not valued at all. Only by embedding its true financial, social and environmental value into policymaking, governance, and financial and risk reporting can we instil a better mentality,” says Mr Mung. “Take wastewater treatment and reuse: when water is valued properly, there are incentives to fully capture the benefits of a circular economy which can bring about a range of new innovations.”

Using tech and data to prepare for water challenges

It is widely agreed that a business-as-usual approach cannot address global water challenges in the future, nor will our current strategies sustain the world’s thirst much longer, particularly when the population hits eight, nine or ten billion in the coming decades. Yet cold, hard data on how our water systems function is still lacking.

“A key challenge is obtaining and accessing a complete, up-to-date picture of supply and demand to understand competing needs and trade-offs. Too often, issues of data access, fragmentation and quality constrain decision-makers,” explains Mr Mung.

Technology such as satellite imagery and other Earth observation tools can help. In 2021, the Surface Water Ocean Topography mission, a joint satellite mission between Nasa and France, will use radar technology to provide the first global survey of Earth’s water, measuring how bodies of water change over time. The satellite will survey at least 90 per cent of the planet, studying lakes, rivers, reservoirs and oceans roughly twice every 21 days.

How technology is countering water challenges in agriculture

In the agriculture sector, companies such as Microsoft are demonstrating how precision irrigation using smart sensors in fields can give information about soil conditions. Crop data, coupled with drone images of fields, and the use of artificial intelligence to interpret data and model a heat map of the crop area, can all help ensure water is used optimally in food production.

“Emerging fourth industrial revolution technologies – machine-learning, artificial intelligence, advanced sensors, satellite imagery, robotics and others – have the potential to unlock a wealth of previously unobtainable data about water systems at the global, regional, watershed and local level,” says Mr Mung.

“Combined with new forms of public-private collaboration, these technologies can support decision-makers across industry, government and civil society to balance trade-offs, identify common priorities and make smarter investment choices.”

Emerging fourth industrial revolution technologies have the potential to unlock a wealth of previously unobtainable data about water systems

Governments must aid development of water technologies

The WEF believes leveraging emerging water technologies into the mainstream cannot be left to startups, accelerators and investors alone. New research is also desperately needed to explore the implications of emerging tech in areas ranging from ecosystem management to sanitation and water risk disclosure.

“Governments must remain at the centre of the water innovation agenda. They are ultimately responsible for ensuring technologies are developed responsibly. Public authorities will also need to develop new policy frameworks for how emerging technologies are tested and refined,” says Mr Mung.

Any killer water app will also need to be scaled up, derisked and endorsed at all levels. “Building a strong culture of innovation is critical for the global water community’s ability to fully harness the fourth industrial revolution. Without this, technology-enabled solutions will still be developed, but likely by a select few and not necessarily in a way that gets to the root of water challenges,” he says.

Insight: transforming the sector 

The World Economic Forum’s Water Initiative is exploring how to harness fourth industrial revolution technologies to transform the water sector in collaboration with the World Bank’s Water Global Practice and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation. Called Water Security Rewired, the platform is looking at how to scale progress in a number of areas.

Digital tech is transforming traditional water and wastewater systems, particularly when it comes to operational efficiency. From intelligent applications that identify and remotely repair leaks, to virtual and augmented reality tools to help train employees, new solutions are being developed to manage systems remotely, saving time and resources.

Elsewhere, the shift towards off-grid and hybrid systems for water and wastewater treatment is also helping to extend water services. Such systems are enabled by promising technologies including the internet of things (IoT), remote sensing and artificial intelligence, which support real-time and remote monitoring of system performance, water use and quality.

New sources of water data enabled by technological advancements in areas such as the IoT, remote sensing and blockchain can radically improve transparency around issues of water availability, use and quality. By getting more accurate and larger volumes of water data into the public domain, advanced technologies can help address information asymmetries and empower more confident decision-making at all levels of society.  

Advanced technologies such as remote sensors, drones and blockchain have the power to disrupt and reimagine water intensive supply chains. From operational efficiencies to new business models, technology-enabled solutions are helping companies and investors to understand and quantify water-related risks and opportunities, and devise new strategies to address them.

Advances in material science are poised to diversify water supplies and lower dependencies on vulnerable sources. The far-reaching uses of nanotechnology, for example, could unleash new water sources at scale bringing benefits in the form of expanded desalination capabilities, improved wastewater treatment or even the rehabilitation of deteriorating infrastructure.