Water and sanitation services are fundamental to a society’s well-being and it is necessary for urban utilities to maintain high standards in this regard. As water is a basic necessity, supplying drinking water is a continuous process and water utilities focus on the whole management process, from catchment to source and finally to consumers’ taps. Water that is unfit for consumption undermines consumer confidence, leading to complaints and, more importantly, to the use of water from sources that are less safe. Therefore, it is the responsibility of water utilities to ensure the provision of safe water supply to their consumers.
The United Nations World Water Development (UNWWD) report, published in 2019, estimates that 3.6 billion people live in areas that suffer from water scarcity for at least one month each year. Further, as per the report, by 2050, 6 billion people around the world are expected to suffer from clean water scarcity. In order to overcome these challenges, water utilities are leveraging internet of things (IoT) and digitalising their operations for efficient water management throughout the water cycle, from source to taps, besides ensuring efficient treatment of wastewater to protect the scare water resources.
Currently, water utilities are at a critical juncture, as they are planning to upgrade the existing infrastructure to improve the resilience of key operations to serve their consumers better and curb water wastage. Meanwhile, governments and policymakers are undertaking several short-term and long-term measures to improve regional water security and self-sufficiency.
A gamut of initiatives
Established in 2004, GWMWater is a government-owned statutory corporation responsible for providing, managing and operating water supply and sewerage systems in Victoria, Australia. GWMWater’s operational area covers around 62,000 square km or 25 per cent of Victoria. Using IoT technology, GWMWater replaced 29,000 water meters with an all-in-one device and retrofitted 3,000 meters with electronic devices. The retrofitted meters are low-cost electronic devices, which use a low-power wide area network to transfer data to the host provider. The consumption data is then aggregated by the host provider, returned to GWMWater for operational purposes and redirected into the customer portal, thereby empowering customers with more accurate information about their water services.
The portal presents an opportunity to deliver tailored information to customers such as whether the retrofitted meters receive potable or non-potable supply, and the current level of water restrictions based on each property’s location. Feedback from the first phase of the pilot programme, which featured 200 early adopters, established that 25 per cent of customers had set up high water use or leak alerts.
Non-revenue water (NRW) is one of the pressing issues for water utilities, arising due to leaking and broken pipes usually caused by either outdated infrastructure or poor maintenance. Various utilities across the world are tackling the challenge of NRW by including leak reduction goals.
The city of Lille in France has set a target of improving its water network performance from 79 per cent to 85 per cent by 2023 using IoT-based water management solutions. Other regional governments are also directing utilities to upgrade their water distribution networks through regulatory policies. Some of the early initiatives by countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Israel and Malta, where regulatory policymakers have mandated the use of digital technologies to improve smart water grids and to reduce utilities’ water losses to less than 12 per cent, are driving the adoption of leak detection and monitoring of water pressure.
In South Korea, Gochang Waterworks implemented smart water meters in 24,000 households in Gochang county by end-2017. This smart metering project not only improved the accuracy of usage-based data for billing but also reduced costs from leakages by 19 per cent.
The Water Services Regulation Authority in the UK has mandated that water utilities reduce their water leakage by 15 per cent by 2025, forcing them to undertake initiatives to digitalise their distribution infrastructure. In 2019, South East Water announced trials in partnership with industry experts to develop and connect smart water meters and placed acoustic sensors on underground pipelines using Vodafone’s narrowband-IoT network to precisely detect and prevent leaks in its distribution system. Moreover, South East Water is implementing Xylem’s Visenti for software analytics to manage and analyse sensor data installed on water systems, such as flow rate, level, volume totaliser, pressure and water quality.
In order to address water utilities’ growing demand for IoT solutions, regional telecommunication companies are building their capabilities by partnering with IoT platform vendors having expertise in the water sector. As the technology hardware and software ecosystem is maturing, water utilities are investing in IoT platforms, based on a cost-benefit ratio and capital investments that do not put a significant strain on their financial resources.
Need for digitalisation in light of Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has put significant strain on water utilities’ ability to continue delivering critical services to customers while operating with limited resources. Upon coming out of the pandemic, utilities need to make their supply chain more resilient to future shocks by leveraging digital tools to optimise and automate their water management operations beyond smart metering and meter-to-cash applications.
Utilities need to develop a long-term holistic vision of an integrated water resource management system that acts as a central system of record and a control system for all of their assets. They can also partner with technology service providers and system integrators to carefully evaluate innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies that help to process data from multiple sources into actionable operational insights on a real-time basis.
As utilities evaluate various IoT platforms, they will also need to decide whether to invest in AI infrastructure on the cloud or edge. Almost all AI training and inferences are performed on the cloud. Due to a cloud network’s scalability and flexibility, many organisations have chosen to rely on cloud computing, storage and networking architecture. However, as the AI and ML solution ecosystem matures, the execution of AI functions will move closer to edge devices. Edge AI will also enable utilities to create automated closed-loop systems that continuously monitor the health of critical infrastructure to enable efficient asset management through predictive maintenance and to build the necessary redundancy in the system to reduce downtime and increase reliability.
Utilising various remote sensing and imaging solutions in conjunction with geographic information system technologies, utilities can map and monitor their water resources. Further, using smart meter data they can obtain accurate insights on end-customers’ water consumption and improve accuracy of demand and supply forecasting. However, it is important to note that as the level of AI complexity increases for more accurate insights, the return in terms of cost to value starts diminishing.
The way forward
In sum, IoT, AI, ML and other emerging digital technologies have the potential to transform water utilities by improving day-to-day water management, addressing long-term challenges of water security and helping them become resilient to natural disasters and climate changes. The IoT and AI technologies will also play an increasingly important role in planning and designing water microgrids for decentralised water and sanitation systems. As water utilities adopt digital technologies, it is imperative for them to develop a road map for digitalisation while keeping customer and business outcomes as the focal points.