The global coronavirus pandemic has proven to be an unexpected and unprecedented challenge for industries across the entire world, but in particular for the water utilities sector. In the face of changing consumer demands for water, new directives to wash hands for 20-30 seconds have caused an almost overnight increase in demand towards higher consumption.
As one of our most precious resources, water is vital to our planet and fundamental to human life. And now, more so than ever, it has a critical role to play in safeguarding our wellbeing.
For governments and utility companies, it has never been more important to ensure that critical services continue to be delivered to businesses, hospitals and homes across the nation and around the world. The complexities of this crisis have ushered in many new challenges, which we must contend with, however, as we strive to maintain essential water and wastewater services for our communities. Worker safety, changes in domestic consumption patterns – including drastic increases in water demand – and water scarcity are just some examples of these obstacles.
In the face of such challenges, the decisions utility leaders make today to protect their employees, communities and businesses from COVID-19 will have a resounding impact on the operations of tomorrow. In order to maintain operational stability now, and bolster critical infrastructure against potential crises in the years to come, ensuring the safety of networks will continue to play a key role. Looking ahead however, we must also focus on what we can learn from this crisis in order to drive innovative solutions that will reinforce the efficiency of water networks in the long-term.
Despite the many challenges we are facing during this hugely testing time, it seems to me that there are a number of positive learnings we can take with us as we adapt to this ‘new normal’
In fact, despite the many challenges we are facing during this hugely testing time, it seems to me that there are a number of positive learnings we can take with us as we adapt to this ‘new normal’ – many of which can be implemented to improve the resiliency of the sector long after the post COVID-19 era.
While the UAE is home to some of the most innovative infrastructure in the world, which has been key to the country’s ability to remain resilient in the face of this crisis, this global pandemic has been a stark reminder of the importance of business continuity planning. As we settle into our new reality, utilities should place greater emphasis on forecasting and modelling different scenarios to ensure they are prepared for any and all eventualities. Identifying gaps in these scenarios now will arm them with the information and tools they need to develop actionable short and long-term strategies.
As utility executives lead their organisations through the inevitable and transformative changes the crisis has brought, it is also imperative to consider the broader implications on the horizon. This includes potential changes to operating models we have become accustomed to. For example, with the practice of ‘social distancing’ becoming the norm to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, measures must also be put in place to ensure the delivery of our most critical resources, which falls on the shoulders of our front-line workers. They need to be out there come rain, shine or pandemic to ensure the continuity of seamless services, so ensuring appropriate safety measures are in place, such as remote monitoring of operations, to safeguard their wellbeing, is vital.
While people are being asked to stay at home, and handwashing is being emphasized as a crucial strategy in containing the spread of the coronavirus, water utilities across the country have been suspending the practice of cutting off customers due to non-payment. But it remains to be seen how utilities will absorb the costs associated with overdue payments, late payments, and even non-payments. Add to this the fact that commercial usage has plummeted in recent months, with Non-residential customers representing a large segment of utilities’ customer bases in terms of water use and revenue generation. However utilities who have adopted cutting edge digital solutions will stand in good stead. Leakage and pressure management, capital spending optimization, streamlined water quality monitoring, and network operations and maintenance represent the biggest opportunities to improve utility performance, and protect the bottom line.
I expect a positive impact to include an acceleration in the digital transformation of the utility industry and beyond
In an addition to the financial relief that digital transformation can bring, the sector is expected to offer further opportunities to advance its sustainability efforts. Decision Intelligence solutions, which use information to support better decision-making, are empowering utilities to deliver more with less and enable full optimisation of this precious resource.
Adding to the strain of increased demand are the already commonplace leaks and bursts in pipes that can be a major pressure-point for utilities, also known as Non-revenue water (NRW).
NRW can take various shapes, from a leak that is not detected by the utility over time, to a burst pipe that causes major damage to infrastructure, all amounting to the utility losing resources and failing to preserve water. Smart network solutions not only help to reduce NRW, but can be a great example of how utilities can optimise the economics of their operations, by generating greater efficiencies through data analytics, tools such as the FlexNet® communication network, and real-time planning, in addition to the ability for utilities to pivot as required to fluctuating consumer demands.
As the water sector begins to shape to the new normal, utilities will likely look for ways to leverage digital technologies to support them in building resilience against future shocks, and to emerge from the crisis more sustainable and stronger than ever before.
With the move towards smarter cities, such digital upgrades for utilities will be an important milestone for increased water security for the industrial, commercial, agricultural, and domestic sectors, which all have a direct impact on a nation’s wider social and economic security and growth.
Whilst it is clear that the outbreak of COVID-19 has posed one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, we must not overlook the positive opportunity for learning provided and the long-term legacy it will leave on our industry. I expect a positive impact to include an acceleration in the digital transformation of the utility industry and beyond.
We are possibly looking at a future where pandemics and epidemics become a part of life, and utilities must decide on the right strategic approach to futureproof their operations. Predicting what the new future will look like is one thing, but today's utilities need a roadmap for getting there. By embracing the power of technology, we are taking a step in the right direction to achieve this. The journey may be difficult, but the implications of a successful transformation will be celebrated by customers, employees, shareholders and regulators for decades to come.