The digital transformation is based on the connectivity of physical elements with the digital world, the optimisation of communications and access to services, scalable and low-cost data availability in the cloud, and finally, information analysis. All of these open up a world of possibilities and values, where water management services shift from a traditional decision-making approach to predictive and holistic approaches with greater insight and capacity to act.
But the true digital transformation involves getting the best information in order to make the best possible decisions. The digitalisation of the water sector leads to enhanced productivity, greater resilience and increased sustainability; ultimately, it results in greater competitiveness in those activities where water is a key factor which cannot be replaced.
In addition to using water more efficiently, new technologies help to apply different deficit irrigation strategies successfully. Their purpose is to reduce significantly the amount of water used for irrigation, with a minimum impact on yield. Among these strategies, we highlight controlled deficit irrigation (CDI), which takes into account the different response of crops to water inputs during each growth stage.
The digitalisation of the water sector leads to enhanced productivity, greater resilience and increased sustainability
The sensors currently used in agriculture generate a huge volume of data. We use special techniques, what is known as big data, a new discipline, for the treatment of large amounts of data. This discipline uses artificial intelligence techniques, predictive systems, models, neural networks and other tools designed to support decision making. The use of new sensors in agriculture, together with the new tools for data treatment, has led to what is known as agriculture 4.0. It means, in sum, to consider agriculture as an industry where new technological and scientific advances are used to achieve higher productivity with reduced inputs and a small as possible impact on the environment.
Being aware of the importance of water, it is key to understand the nexus between water and energy. Energy requirements per water unit volume are very different depending on the process involved. For example, transport requires approximately 0.004 kWh.m-3 and metre of elevation. However, desalination requires 3-4 kWh.m-3 and water treatment 0,5 kWh.m-3. Because the water volume used is quite large, especially for irrigation, the energy consumption is very high, and the costs sometimes restrict water use.
The use of ICTs in water distribution networks, together with hydraulic models, artificial intelligence techniques and predictive systems allow smart management of water distribution networks. These techniques are already being applied to supply drinking water, and, to a lesser extent, in irrigation, achieving energy savings of more than 20% with little effort.
The use of renewable energies is another important alternative. At some locations in distribution networks there is excess pressure, that, ironically, is dissipated using mechanical means. This energy could be recovered with turbines or microturbines and used for another purpose. However, without a doubt, the top renewable energy alternative is photovoltaic energy. In the case of irrigation, it is an ideal solution: the period of peak demand coincides with the period of highest irradiance, and in rural areas space is usually available. However, the solution is not that easy, because it requires holistic solutions that address the issue in a comprehensive way, including knowledge of the soil, the plant, the irrigation network, and climate variability. This is the basis for sustainable and smart irrigation into the future.