Why Make Water Systems Smart?









Few people need to be reminded of water’s importance. Along with energy, it is essential for everyday life. Water provides sustenance, supports industry and irrigates fields. But city administrations are struggling to meet rising demand from growing populations while contending with issues such as water quality, flooding, drought and aging infrastructure.

According to the United Nations, about two-thirds of the world’s population — 4.6 billion people — will face water-stressed conditions in the next decade.

Think you don’t really need to worry about water in your area? Think again. A handful of the issues confronting urban water supplies include: sea levels on the rise; flooding on the rise; storms on the rise; droughts on the rise; fresh water on the decline; water quality on the decline; aging infrastructure; competition from agriculture; and competition from recreation.

Smart Water Systems

Smart cities use information and communications technology (ICT) to achieve a sustainable, efficient and clean water supply. Most people refer to an ICT-enabled water system as a “smart water system” or a “smart water network.” Smart water is driven by four urgent realities: 1.) water is scarce; 2.) water is at risk; 3.) water is underpriced; and 4.) water infrastructure is expensive.

Every city must use smart technology to preserve and enhance its water supply while keeping the cost of water as low as possible. Already we see regions where water periodically becomes scarce. We see regions where water is prohibitively expensive. For these reasons and many other reasons, every city must use smart technology to preserve and enhance its water supply while keeping the cost of water as low as possible. ICT can contribute in at least seven ways:

  1. Map and monitor the physical infrastructure. Most water utilities do not know with great precision where their pipes and valves are located. In particular, they don’t know the actual condition of that infrastructure. ICT gives a highly accurate picture of location and health of the system.
  2. Accurately measure what is consumed. Smart water meters can give customers highly accurate records of their consumption while also helping utilities spot non-revenue water (NRW) that is being lost to defective equipment, leaks and theft.
  3. Monitor drinking water quality. A smart water system can have sensors placed strategically throughout the network to detect contaminants. Those sensors can monitor the acidity and alkalinity, watch for biological indicators, measure chlorine and other chemicals and watch for heavy metals, then alert human operators when problems arise so they can intervene quickly to mitigate threats.
  4. Present, perfect and predict. A smart water system can not only monitor flooding, it can predict it in time to prepare. Using data from the first two examples above, a smart water system can present current conditions to give operators full situational awareness; perfect the system by optimizing it; and predict leaks, floods and equipment failures. “Utilities can achieve better operations through better knowledge and tighter control of the network’s extensive and complex assets,” explains the Smart Water Network Forum. Modern “dashboards” and tools can “improve the efficiency, longevity and reliability of the underlying physical water network by better measuring, collecting, analyzing and acting upon a wide range of events.”
  5. Make better use of diffuse and distributed non-traditional water resources through recapture, recycling and reuse and through better planning. Water is so much broader than pipes and treatment plants. Rain falls everywhere — on our rooftops, into our soil, gardens and grass and on our roads. This water can all be captured and put to use with the help of ICT. Instrumentation diffused into these “green” water systems can store water, while advanced analytics are critical to managing this distributed resource. You can have the insight to understand where your green water systems are, how they are performing and how the water they capture can be best deployed.
  6. Better prepare for storms. Some parts of the world —North America for instance — must confront challenging water quality and storm water regulations. And many parts of the world are faced with flooding that is reaching new extremes. Smart water systems not only monitor flooding, they can predict events in time to prepare for flood control and disaster management.
  7. Harness the energy and nutrient resources in water and wastewater. ICT helps us capture the full potential of water. Beyond its own value as a scare resource, water systems house nutrients and even energy. Technology enables us to reduce and recapture excess kinetic energy in water supply piping utilizing it to power sensors, recover energy and nutrients in wastewater, and avoid the damaging dumping of nutrients into carefully balanced ecosystems.


Water Realities

Let’s quickly consider some realities that affect when, where and how a city should approach the transformation of its water system.

Smart cities “close the loop” around local watersheds. A watershed is the land area that drains into a particular river, lake or ocean. “Closing the loop” refers to reducing (or even ending) the import of water from other watersheds while taking full advantage of the water available within the loop. Giving preference to locally available water allows a city to be more confident in the sustainability of its water program.

ICT helps cities close the loop by maximizing the potential of non-traditional sources. The idea is to supplement traditional water sources such as reservoirs and aquifers by capturing storm water runoff, gray water and purple water and by tapping natural systems like wetlands, rivers and lakes. ICT can oversee and optimize the capture of water from these sources. Closed-loop systems also use different grades of water for different needs. For example, treated wastewater isn’t suitable for drinking but may be perfectly suitable to water crops.

Smart water also requires collaboration. Perhaps more than any other city responsibility, water is a regional issue. The water source that city residents use to quench their thirst may be the same that a factory uses for its operations or a farmer to water his crops 100 miles away. Water is tied into vast watersheds that link many population centers. Because of that, a smart water vision requires a collaborative approach between cities and a lengthy list of stakeholders.

Smart water requires smart policy. There are many ways that local, regional and national governments can enhance the prospects for smart water. One instance: policy improvements that clear the way for public-private partnerships to help with the financing. Another is mandates for efficiency, conservation, leak reduction or water quality. Yet another is working with suppliers to craft a careful business case that demonstrates the return on investment.

Whatever steps a city takes, it should not mandate a specific technology. Rather, it should mandate the results it wants, and then work with advisors and suppliers to determine the best way to achieve that result.
Smart water may need creative financing and staffing. Many city budgets are under great pressure. Even if a city can make a strong business case for rapid payback, it may not have the funds to finance the project. Fortunately, several alternative mechanisms have arisen to lighten that load. For instance, some suppliers will sell software-as-a-service (SaaS) on a monthly fee basis. This eliminates the need for the city to make a big capital purchase and install, maintain and update all the hardware and software on its own. Instead, the supplier handles all that in the cloud, and the city simply pays a monthly charge. In many ways, this is similar to leasing a car instead of buying it.

Another option is a risk-sharing contract. The city pays a reduced fee to the supplier, and then shares a portion of the saved costs or additional revenue back to the supplier. It is worth noting that some developing countries have funding available for infrastructure projects, often thanks to grants and programs from development banks. Utilities in those regions have the chance to leapfrog the developed world by jumping straight to a state-of-the-art smart water system. Even cities with adequate funding may lack adequate in-house ICT skills and personnel to run a sophisticated smart water system. Here again, SaaS offers a solution.

The Compelling Case for Smarter Water

Non-revenue water (NRW) is a major challenge for water utilities around the world. NRW has a significant financial impact on utilities and their customers. It also represents the loss of a precious resource. NRW occurs for a variety of reasons: unmetered consumption (where water meters do not exist so usage can’t be accurately measured); authorized but unbilled consumption (firefighting, for instance); apparent losses (water theft and metering inaccuracies); and real losses (leaks and bursts).

A 2011 study by the Smart Water Networks Forum (SWAN), an industry advisor to the Smart Cities Council, compiled NRW losses in urban centers around the world. The findings were staggering. The NRW in Guayaquil, Ecuador topped the list at 73 percent, but Adana, Turkey wasn’t far behind at 69 percent. NRW ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent were not uncommon. Conversely Singapore, which is recognized as a leader and innovator in smart water, reported NRW losses of just 4 percent.

As Navigant Research analyst Neil Strother states: “Losses from NRW represent $14 billion in missed revenue opportunity each year, according to the World Bank. The economic case for better water metering is compelling.”

Navigant has forecasted that the global installed base of smart water meters will reach 29.9 million by 2017, up from just 10.3 million meters in 2011. By the end of the forecast period, Navigant anticipates that 3.3 million smart water meters will be shipped each year, representing an annual market value of $476 million.

Smart water meters are only part of the larger market. In 2011, Lux Research said that the market for technologies to inspect and repair the world’s aging water infrastructure was approaching $20 billion worldwide and growing at a healthy 10 percent. It reported that many municipalities were desperately seeking cost-effective new ways to maintain their pipe networks. Lux claimed that the most successful solutions would be those that can monitor the entire water infrastructure and reveal the sections in most urgent need of repair.

“Outdated water infrastructure and record deficits are both fueling demand for low-cost inspection and repair solutions — namely software and sensor technologies that can provide a snapshot of a utility’s entire infrastructure,” said Brent Giles, a Lux Research senior analyst. “Without this holistic view, utilities cannot prioritize the most critical repairs — and may end up throwing money down the drain to address the leaks that are visible today rather than the ones that could prove catastrophic tomorrow.”

This article is an excerpt of the water/wastewater chapter of the Smart Cities Readiness Guide, a framework developed by the Smart Cities Council for government leaders to enhance the livability, workability and sustainability of their cities. To view the full section, which further details the case for smart water systems, target technologies and applications, or to view the complete Readiness Guide, please visit www.smartcitiescouncil.com.

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