What happens if taps run dry?
What would happen if water was not available?
In the developed world, expectation is nothing less than a right. We turn on the tap, and we expect clean drinking water to flow; we switch on the lights, and bulbs must illuminate; we swim in waterways that must be safe and free from bacteria.
Many resources that are critical for life are taken for granted with little regard as to how the water came to be in the tap or how the power got to the bulb. They are regarded as an entitlement.
But beneath the surface, hidden and unseen, lies literally a labyrinth of aquifers and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipes and wires, connected by a myriad of pumps and valves all pulsing away in real time in the most intricate interconnected web that make our cities habitable. Decades of planning, engineering, sweat and hard labour have been invested to provide these precious commodities – and the tide of demand is rising ever higher.
It’s often said that we don’t realise what we have until it’s gone.
This is perhaps how some of the 1.7 million residents of South Australia felt on the evening of 29 September 2016, when severe storms toppled power transmission towers and left their state in darkness. The infrastructure that ensured the steady provision and flow of electricity went largely unnoticed and unappreciated, until it was no longer doing its job.
Similarly, the resource supply systems undergirding cities in the Middle East’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Qatar in particular, are currently under severe strain. For agriculture alone in 2013, Qatar drew some 230 million cubic metres of water (enough for 92,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools), according to the ‘Water Statistics in the Qatar state 2013’ report published by its Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS).
That is about five times as much water as is entering Qatar’s aquifers each year, leading to increased salinity and making it difficult to use the groundwater for irrigation and for drinking water supply in the future. Furthermore, in 2012, Qatar’s total water production was supplied by desalinated sea water (57%), abstractions from groundwater (33%) and the remainder from treated sewage effluent. Desalination is a high user of energy, making it an expensive source of water. How sustainable is this option in the long-term?
Like many countries, Qatar faces the real possibility of a perfect storm that will push the infrastructure close to breaking point.
The confluence of our insatiable appetite for urbanisation coupled with an unpredictable climate, all superimposed on infrastructure that is aging, requires a new paradigm. Ongoing demands for upkeep and expansion have an eye-watering price tag. Water infrastructure is a multibillion-dollar asset that, if we were to overhaul and redo, would burden a country’s budget. As an illustration, Qatar had allocated $3 billion for water projects from 2009 to 2012. With demand expected to increase from 535 million cubic metres in 2015 to about 900 million cubic metres by 2025, according to Qatar General Electricity & Water Corporation’s (Kahramaa) estimates, how can stakeholders manage the compounding pressures on limited resources, coupled with the adverse effects of climate change? The public purse and taxpayer pool will have to somehow satisfy the living standards and expectations to which communities have become accustomed.
Water cannot be seen as an isolated utility, but an integrated variable in the quest to solve societies’ major problems. Water authorities like Kahramaa have done an excellent job, quenching our thirst for water over the years. But the challenges are not for them to tackle alone. The world of water in a decade’s time will see people expect exactly the same level of service (if not better), yet the problem will have grown in complexity. More pipelines are only a palliative solution. It’s a mindset shift that’s called for: the utility authorities will need to change people’s behaviour through better digital interaction with water – something which Kahramaa has started doing with the recent launch of its app.
Getting ahead of the game
Imagine a future where consumers can view how their behaviours affect the water supplies in real-time and make better decisions as a result of being empowered.
For this to happen, current ‘unintelligent’ analogue systems can be progressively transformed into a ‘smart network’, boosted by predictive analytics to draw the best out of our limited water supply by offering simple, intuitive, and meaningful insights.
Imagine further, as a water authority or similar stakeholder, having this Big Data information that can expedite optimal and cost-effective management strategies that keep the water cycles healthy.
Installing predictive maintenance applications can feel at times like a Herculean task. But the statistics present a convincing argument to motivate a change of gears into digital integration.
Despite being known for its scarcity of water, Qatar lost 29.13 million cubic metres of drinking water in 2012 (about 11,600 Olympic-sized swimming pools) through leaks, bursts and overflows, according to MDPS and Kahramaa. On top of the economic loss, this has a downward chain reaction on food prices, health and sanitation.
Connecting these assets into a real-time monitoring network will reduce the time it takes to discover and solve problems that historically appear only when they literally surface. That same data can be applied as red alerts to motivate preventative maintenance and mitigated risk into the future. Smart meters, high-tech leak detection devices and water data software are starting to offer sophisticated and granular information on how to maximise ROI, impact and environmental sustainability within water management and distribution systems. The municipalities who are taking heed are gaining traction in the future-ready race.
Digitalisation of water
The ‘magnifying glass’ or micro approach to problem solving is no longer viable within the context of our interconnected digital world. If we don’t contextualise the water crisis under the bigger themes of climate change and urbanisation, we could solve a water problem, while unintentionally creating an economic one.
Ultimately, our water problems will not be solved by throwing water solutions at them. If we are to ensure this precious commodity’s sufficient supply into the future, we have to adopt new ways of thinking around our capability and responsibility to steward the resource. Smart cities are the only solutions with shoulders broad enough to buffer the oncoming high tide of overpopulation.
Mike Axton and Brian Horton, Water Services, Aurecon.