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Technology and collaboration are the key to protecting our future water

About the blog

George Hesmondhalgh
He's passionate about making water sector operations more sustainable. With his background in field operations and digital transformation, George now leads Capgemini’s Intelligent Operations and Smart Rivers initiatives for the water sector.

Themes

  • Technology and collaboration are the key to protecting our future water

Rivers are vital to powering our economies and sustaining ecosystems. From agriculture and industry to tourism and transport, rivers form the backbone of our society.

Yet river health has been under-prioritised, driven by historical industrialisation and overdevelopment. Legacy infrastructure has seen a lack of investment contributing to uncontrolled pollution. In the UK, river pollution has become a critical and urgent societal and environmental problem that has attracted much political attention.

Unchecked Pollution: A Normalised Crisis

Until recently, pollution has been perceived as unchecked and normalised. Whether caused by sewerage overflow, agricultural runoff, or urban sprawl, pollutants entering our rivers are as varied as they are dangerous.

Whilst we have made progress to reduce the impact of traditional pollutants, such as sewage, nutrients and metals, only 14% of the UK’s rivers are in good ecological health, with every single one failing to meet chemical standards, posing a serious risk to human health and the loss of biodiversity.

Accountability for this widespread pollution remains elusive. Calls for urgent improvements to water quality as well as enhancements to monitoring programmes are being made, but traditional methods for monitoring water quality are proving inadequate, time-consuming, costly, and fragmented.

And it’s not just a UK problem: globally there are innumerable reported cases of water pollution. For example, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharges into New York Harbour each year, and as little as 1.25mm of rain can overload the system, leaving many parts of the waterfront unsafe for recreation after it rains. 

Governmental and Public Response

In the UK, the Environment Act passed in 2021 was designed to drive increased accountability through monitoring of rivers, and apply pressure to reduce pollution through increasing the impact of fines.

Public pressure, shift in governmental action, and the start of a new financial cycle for water companies presents a unique moment for change. This is a key reason the UK water sector is expected to deliver its largest investment since water companies were privatised in 1989 over the next five years.  At Capgemini we believe it’s crucial that we don’t miss the opportunity to use proven digital technologies to maximise this investment.

Unprecedented Monitoring Demands

As part of the Act, water companies have additional responsibilities to provide comprehensive river quality monitoring. The Continuous Water Quality Monitoring (CWQM) regulation is a statutory obligation under Section 82 of the Environment Act 2021, requiring quality monitoring upstream and downstream of discharge points, to assess pollutant impacts on watercourses.

Delivering this requirement through traditional monitoring would involve installing approximately 18,000 monitoring stations by 2035, which would have a substantial embedded carbon footprint. Traditional techniques are likely to end up costly and may not provide the outcomes needed. Fixed river monitoring approaches often require regular maintenance and calibration, and signals often fail to provide continuous, actionable data. This is due to worsen, with many of the proposed sites sitting in areas that will be impacted by the increased frequency of flooding.

A sustainable, whole-life focus is needed, concentrating on physical and digital innovation to reduce the carbon and financial burden, whilst providing a data set that can still be valuable when considering pollution accountability.

Changing Tides in Smart River Solutions

When faced with complex, multifaceted problems, having visibility of the emerging innovation, digital tools and methodologies will increase the likelihood that you can identify the maximum value in an unpredictable pathway. Setting a vision, goals, and frameworks without truly understanding the full capability of connected assets, digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced analytical capabilities reduces the likelihood of identifying the optimum solution.

When we looked at CWQM regulation, we saw the opportunity to utilise AI, machine learning, and predictive analytics to enhance the insights from physical river monitoring. When deployed alongside an ensemble of data sources (satellite imagery, weather forecasting, and other sensors from across the river and water company network), this approach provides an opportunity to reduce the number of physical sensors required. This asset optimisation drives opportunities to reallocate capital investment and cuts long-term operational costs.

With a model-based solution in place, additional features like predictive analytics can enable operational teams to visualise real-time river catchment health and take informed, proactive steps to mitigate future events.

A modelled solution will also provide scenario planning capability to assess macro-changes to the river catchment (for example urban and industrial development, agricultural land use, or climate change) in turn guiding the optimisation of precious capital to mitigate pollution incidents. 

Beyond predictive analytics and scenario planning, the extensibility of an AI-model allows for ongoing learning to address emerging pollutants as they arise – tackling the next opportunities for environmental improvement before they require legislative action.

This approach draws from established practices in industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, where model-based solutions have demonstrated robustness and transformative efficiency. These regularly see a reduction of physical monitoring by more than 50%. For instance, components used in aircraft are often certified using analysis-based models approved by airworthiness regulators, highlighting the reliability and effectiveness of this approach. By leveraging insights from these sectors, the water industry can benefit from adopting similar solutions to drive efficiency and address emerging challenges.

Collaborating to Drive Change

Whether it is climate change increasing the risk of flooding due to abnormal weather patterns, or further focus on environmental quality, the water industry must be prepared for the evolution of monitoring demands. Flexibility in digital systems will accelerate future monitoring of pollutants not yet mandated, like microplastics. Collaboration across sectors is crucial to drive change and improve river health. Long-term partnerships involving technology firms, industry players, specialist data providers, utilities, and non-government organisations are essential to provide the insights needed for better river health.

In summary, the industry has a golden opportunity to drive change and protect the environment by leveraging proven technology to deliver rapid insights at optimum cost. By maximising the available investment and collaborating effectively, the industry can address the critical and urgent attention our river health demands. This is a call to action for all stakeholders to come together and seize this opportunity to protect our rivers and secure a more sustainable future. Capgemini is committed to its role in creating clean and safe rivers for all.

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