Glass half full? Innovative technologies could increase global water security

New Security Beat

By Brigitte Hugh

By 2050, the UN estimates that 52 percent of the world’s population will be at risk for water insecurity. Climate change is threatening water availability through increased temperatures and drought, unpredictable rain, and the growing threat of more pollution. Globally, most wastewater reenters the water cycle without being treated, introducing dangerous unseen particles including pharmaceuticals, diseases, and larger waste products such as plastics.

Now more than ever, we need to use every tool at our disposal, both old and new, to manage, clean, and preserve our most precious resource. Innovative technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence, alongside improved water treatment and reuse technologies can help us protect our water resources.

Managing the Water We Have

Emerging technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Internet of Things (IoT) devices in combination can be optimized to make managing water systems easier, more efficient, and more capable of making accurate predictions.

Smart metering uses IoT sensors installed at critical junctures in water piping to alert water managers when water levels are unusually high or low, so anomalies such as leaks or floods can be quickly identified and addressed. Using the data from these IoT sensors, AI algorithms can assess how floods will impact infrastructure and assist in developing and implementing flood prevention programs. During Superstorm Sandy, Geosyntec’s rainwater collection tank was able to avoid catastrophic failure because it was connected to IoT devices and used weather monitoring algorithms which allowed it take steps ahead of the storm to mitigate the impacts before the individuals running the tank were even aware of the possibilities.  The data can also be used to inform water consumers how much water they are using in real time, aiding conscious conservation. In Singapore,public awareness campaigns to use less water have resulted in some families with water utility bills less than half the national average.

IoT sensors to detect chemicals in the water can greatly improve water quality, as unexpected or dangerous chemical levels can be spotted and dealt with immediately. The data collected by these devices can be analyzed by AI algorithms to predict seasons when there might be chemical spikes that can be preemptively treated.

Irrigation methods used for farming are often inefficient, using more water than is necessary. By using IoT devices that can sense soil moisture and an AI algorithm that has access to weather forecasts, irrigation can be turned on only when needed, saving water. IoT and AI can also optimize fertilizer use, preventing nutrient-rich runoff from polluting rivers and groundwater sources.

Finally, these innovative technologies can aid in predicting water resources. Using earth observation data, AI algorithms can predict drought and heavy rain seasons which enables water managers and farmers to manage drought risks by supplying only the water needed for crops, and supporting efficient agricultural water use. As agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use worldwide, using innovative technologies to more efficiently manage agricultural water will help to conserve water for other uses.

Treating the Water We Use

Since 80 percent of wastewater goes untreated worldwide, many high-income countries have focused on developing wastewater treatment plants in recent years. Two-fifths of water security projects funded by the European Union in 2018 focused on wastewater treatment technologies. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Singapore’s water needs are provided by wastewater recycling plants. However, wastewater treatment is still an untapped resource for clean water and energy, in part because it is such a hard concept to sell to the general public.

Additionally, one of wastewater’s primary byproducts, biogas, could ensure that treatment plants are run as zero-energy plants if planned correctly. However, like desalination plants, wastewater treatment poses cost and infrastructure barriers which limit their use to mostly high- and medium-income countries. This leaves the most at-risk populations in low-income countries without treated water, let alone the ability to treat wastewater.

Water treatment innovators are seeking to develop technological solutions that are both implementable at a smaller, more rural scale, and cheap enough to implement in low-income communities. These technologies often harness solar, bioengineering, and chemical treatments.

Each page of the Drinkable Book, developed by researchers at Water is Life and Carnegie Mellon, is a water filter. The book could filter enough water to last four years for a single person. It also educates populations about the critical nature of clean water, acknowledging that providing clean water is not just a technical issue, but one that requires an educational component.

Other systems, like AqualuzSunSpring Hybrid, and Zero Mass Water’s Hydropanel bridge the crucial gap by using sustainable, long-term, and easily maintained systems to provide clean water. SunSpring hybrid is a small, self-contained, portable solar and wind-powered system which can provide 20,000 liters of clean water a day for over 10 years. And the Hydropanel uses solar energy to create enough clean drinking water for two to three people per day. Many more systems are also attempting to provide a way for consistent water to reach the most marginalized populations.

Full Steam Ahead, but with Caution

Although they may be able to help increase water security, Big Data, AI, or IoT devices are still vulnerable to the problems that plague these innovations in all other sectors. IoT objects are often poorly protected and susceptible to hacking. Some caution must be taken to make sure that the IoT objects used are protected so that there is no risk of water management systems being hacked by actors seeking to foster chaos as drivers in Los Angeles discovered after hackers reprogrammed the traffic lights to create gridlock.

These technologies are typically designed to aid affluent regions which can afford installation, upkeep, and are used to data impacting every aspect of practice. These technological aids also often require some technological infrastructure, at the very least, access to mobile phones and an internet connection, which are not always reliably available. It can be all too easy to get swept up in the magic fixes that tech can provide; however, in implementation, conscious efforts must be taken to ensure that the same revolutionary tech fixes available to affluent societies are also available to the poor and marginalized.

Additionally, AI algorithms will need to be trained carefully to make sure that the ever present bias problem is avoided. As an experience in Flint, Michigan demonstrates, even water security is not immune to bias. Volunteer researchers built an algorithm to help identify houses that likely had lead pipes that needed replacing, but it turned out to be discriminatory.

Finally, any technological fix must be implemented with an awareness of cultural, regional, or educational limitations. In the past, systems have been pillaged for parts, or they are made using components that are unavailable in the region. In such cases, once broken, the technology stays broken. Some fixes, such as AI-based ones, require educational expertise not always available. Any technology implemented needs to be something the community can integrate and maintain. If it cannot, the introduction will only exacerbate the problems the technology was supposed to solve.

The use of innovative technologies promises a bright tomorrow, but a bright tomorrow that bears some tempering with reality. Reality encourages us to remember that it will take conscious effort to ensure that these helpful technologies are not just implemented to help the most affluent societies, but that they are also made available to the poorest, most water insecure populations. There is every indication that AI, Big Data, IoT devices, and new treatment methods could aid in ensuring water security and cleanliness. So it’s time to put them to work.

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