Water and technology

We cannot exist without water. It is intrinsic to our survival and healthy ecosystems. That being said, water covers 70% of our planet, and it is easy to think that it will always be plentiful.

However, we are already facing challenges posed by water scarcity. Overpopulation and environmental challenges make water an even more precious asset. Water scarcity already affects every continent and nearly 20% of the world’s population. According to UN estimates, by 2025 nearly 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions. This indirectly influences the rest of the planet’s inhabitants both economically and environmentally.


Water scarcity


This brings about an urgent need to efficiently govern and manage sources of water and to find ways to develop alternative sources of usable water, such as harvesting water. Ensuring the availability and sustainable management of clean water for all is one of the UN sustainable development goals. This is where digital technology can help and can improve the accessibility, safety, and usability of water resources. Such digital technologies are known as smart water or smart water grids, the Internet of water, and smart water management.

Smart water management

The primary objective of smart water management is to enable the reasonable and sustainable use of water resources by relying on information and communication technologies (ICTs) to provide real-time, automated data to resolve water challenges. Smart water management can be used for planning and operational purposes, from daily use to organisational and policy planning at a range of scales, as well as across contexts and regions.

Smart water management technologies and activities aim to: 

  • reduce water waste in industry, manufacturing, agriculture, and power production; 
  • improve water quality and prevent water contamination by chemical waste and natural pollution;
  • enhance the efficiency of existing water systems such as water collectors, treatment plants, distribution mains, and wastewater recycling centers;
  • create and improve mechanisms for harvesting water;
  • implement leakage control;
  • practice water consumption monitoring to optimise usage of water resources at different levels — within households, industries, countries, or the whole planet.

The use of digital technologies for smart water management

These goals can be achieved using digital technologies, such as the Internet of things (IoT), big data, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and augmented reality (AR).

IoT-based precise irrigation systems and leakage management systems enable the monitoring of water resources and optimises its use and management. For instance, using these systems enables farmers to know how to and when to water crops sufficiently, to get updates on the status of sprinkler, and to avoid over/under irrigation.

The combination of IoT, big data, and AI can help identify, analyse, and understand patterns of water use. Such data can help policymakers learn about peak demand periods, identify anomalies in use (due to possible leaks or other problems), and mitigate potential issues by  planning an adaptive and responsive water system. An example is the RainGrid Stormwater Smartgrids system in Canada. This weather AI system uses data such as rain forecasts and the number of rooftops in an area to determine how much rainfall will runoff from household roofs. Based on these calculations the IoT automated cistern captures the water, and filters and stores it for future use, which again is monitored via IoT valves.

Another example is the collaboration between IBM and the Marine Institute to monitor pollution levels and other environmental conditions in Galway Bay in Ireland. A series of sensors collect data on ocean conditions, weather, and water quality while also measuring salinity, temperature, wave energy, tides, and the behaviour of organisms in the bay. The collected data is then analysed to gain an understanding about potential environmental issues in the bay.

Apps can enable direct communication between consumers and their water service providers. For example: In France, water companies send nudging text messages to alert farmers about their water quotas; in India apps were developed to inform people about planned delays or unexpected alterations to their water services; in Tanzania consumers were provided apps to help them determine the quality of drinking water; and in California apps were developed to inform people about their daily water usage and how to modify it accordingly.

Blockchain can be used for conducting secure and transparent water service transactions, and AR can be used to improve the monitoring of hydraulic infrastructure from afar.

Read more about IoT, AI, and blockchain.

Barriers to implementing smart water

There are several barriers and challenges to developing and implementing smart water management systems. The following details a number of these challenges:

Technological challenges

Despite technological developments, there is still a need for improving smart water meters, sensors for water deficiency and quality, technologies for monitoring water-related agro-ecosystem services, and software tools for remotely controlled operational activities. This challenge is more acute in developing countries where there are also barriers related to the slow rate of technical assimilation and power outages.

The high cost of installing and maintaining smart water systems

Smart water systems cost millions of dollars to install, update, and maintain, and therefore often require collaborations between the public and private sectors. Furthermore, these financial limitations also mean that policymakers must frequently decide between investing in typical water maintenance systems (e.g. that still rely on passive control and visual detection of leaks) or in deploying systems which include advanced digital solutions that can drive long-term efficiencies.

Security needs of water management systems

Security is a critical issue that requires regulation, financial investment and technological innovation. So far, the issue has been addressed to an extent by using cyber-security systems and by anonymising customer data to maintain privacy. However, as technologies continue to evolve, and new threats arise, new protocols and encodings need to be developed to configure water management systems in ways that will prevent information leaks. Thus the issue requires an ongoing monitoring, investing and improving existing water systems.

The complexity of adopting new technology

The perceived complexity of smart water systems and the challenges of new technology adoption can often deter decision makers from choosing to use them. The operators of water and wastewater treatment facilities often avoid installing smart equipment because decision makers consider the installation, operation, and maintenance to be complex and risky.

Water regulations and public policy can encourage the use of digital solutions. For example, the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act encourages the development of long-term water use strategies. This has led to the development and adoption of cost-effective digital technologies that measure water use in real time. In the UK, the Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) incentivises process automation and the use of digital technologies to improve water and wastewater services.

Data sharing, integration, interoperability, and standardisation

Water utilities are complex organisations with many data silos, and most of them have legacy systems that contain critical information and valuable historical context. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to ensure integration and interoperability between various systems. These objectives can be achieved through standardisation, which facilitates data sharing and interoperability by using open architecture