The current global water situation requires a major shift in strategy. In fact, the water crisis is already regarded by the World Economic Forum as one of the main threats to the planet. Drought, migratory movements, population growth, and inefficient water management are some of the drivers behind a major issue that directly affects the population’s water security. Against this backdrop, for example, we cannot afford to lose up to 350 billion liters of freshwater per day solely through leaks in supply networks. In fact, pressure on this resource is only increasing, with the UN indicating that water demand is expected to grow by up to 55% between now and 2050.
In the same vein, the report focuses on the inefficient management of water resources in many countries, being one of the main drivers of “environmental degradation, including depletion of aquifers, reduction of river flows, degradation of wildlife habitats and pollution”.
Therefore, water planning, understood as the basic tool to correctly manage and allocate available water resources, is increasingly taking a central role and should be the starting point for any action plan in this field. Water planning focuses on the rational use and sound management of resources, and technology is increasingly being used as a platform to respond to these ongoing challenges.
Technology, a driving force in planning
The availability of real-time, accessible, reliable information that provides information on the status of resources is the first step to sound water planning. In this sense, technology has become a crucial ally. For example, in the water sector, it generates scenarios which function with real-time information. Nowadays, in addition to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), given the importance of data, water utilities are starting to use different systems and technologies. Field and infrastructure sensor networks, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and SCADA systems are just some of the examples of technologies that have been successfully implemented in recent years. These will be further enhanced with the emergence of IoT on a massive scale and the use of Artificial Intelligence techniques.
In fact, the World Bank advocates the use of technology to strengthen water security, highlighting that it is necessary to explore “investments in innovative technologies for enhancing productivity, conserving and protecting resources”. It has already identified resource monitoring information systems as a technology that is gaining traction.
Another area where technology is increasingly in demand is leak control, which is one of the main challenges of water security. The International Water Association (IWA) estimates that approximately 350 billion liters of drinking water are lost every day due to leaks. For this reason, water utilities are increasingly implementing technological upgrades – such as the installation of sensors throughout the network, combined with leak detection systems – to gain greater control over leaks and increase supply system efficiency.
Water planning trends for 2023
The same causes that are driving water planning (demographics, population, climate change, etc.) are increasingly prompting the implementation of initiatives that lead to more sustainable use of water resources. They include the following:
a) Efficient aquifer monitoring and management. According to the UNESCO, groundwater accounts for 99% of all liquid freshwater on Earth. Of this, 25% of all water withdrawn is used for irrigation, while half of the volume of water used for domestic purposes also comes from groundwater.
Therefore, aquifers are a key resource that is currently being tapped in many parts of the world, although growing pressure on these aquifers places them at risk of overexploitation. Moreover, in many cases there is insufficient knowledge of the available resources and a notorious lack of networks to monitor them. Sustainable and efficient resource management requires control systems based on comprehensive sensor networks. These provide real-time information on the major levels and quality parameters of the water bodies, also enabling their integration with surface water control systems, where both types of resources are jointly managed.
b) Increasing distribution system efficiency. This aspect should be prioritized in any water planning policy. Increasing resource use efficiency can be an effective driver in achieving other objectives. Lower consumption will lead to greater availability of the resource, enhancing water security and making it more accessible, thus cutting distribution and treatment costs for the water supplied.
c) Reuse. In a world of diminishing water resources, we must turn our attention to the potential of water reuse as an alternative. The advantages of this approach are obvious: adding value to water treatment and purification processes (here, we are talking about promoting the circular economy in the entire water cycle), reducing the water and carbon footprint of many of our activities, and improving the water security of uses where recycled resources are a feasible option. Here the challenge is twofold: to ensure not only the quantity but also the quality of the effluent to be reused.
d) Use of non-conventional resources. Undoubtedly, the use of non-conventional resources (particularly desalination, given its importance) has become a necessary trend in water planning. Its major handicap, i.e., high implementation and operating costs, can be mitigated by the use, once again, of technology. The use of machine learning techniques and digital twins in plants (combined with automatic and operation support systems), applied to the huge flow of data provided by operating plants, has huge potential, along with the recent technical process improvements (new membrane systems, energy recovery, more efficient equipment, etc.). These include process optimization to reduce costs and the energy footprint of this kind of resources, making them more accessible and environmentally sustainable.
e) Information systems for water weather forecasts and warnings. This is another trend to be taken into account in the deployment of monitoring and warning systems for potential extreme events. It should be remembered that the management of extreme events, such as droughts and floods, is a fundamental part of water planning processes. In this area, the effective use of historical and real-time information and its analysis (using conventional water analysis techniques, approaches based on the use of data science tools, or a combination of both) is key to improving decision-making in challenging environments to conserve and protect resources.
f) Citizen information systems. This is an aspect that should be gradually introduced into water planning policies. Technological advances provide access to tools that supply information to users quickly and directly. The availability of data on consumption and savings obtained through the application of specific measures such as gamification, together with basic information on available resources (reservoir levels, etc.), is a complementary tool to more traditional planning measures.
Therefore, the aim is to open up new technological perspectives and approaches to robust water planning, which is a core aspect of integrated water cycle management. This is especially true when the near-future scenario of the water cycle demands sustainable solutions that can be more effective if companies have high levels of digital transformation