The global community has over-utilized natural resources for many years, resulting in megatrends that can destabilize natural ecosystems and lead to a loss of resilience. Climate change, increasing pollution and biodiversity loss are just a few to name. When addressing these threats, some general response patterns emerge across industries. These patterns also apply for the water industry, which must respond with new strategies, thought-out solutions and services that improve water quality and availability.
Reducing water use is a primary means of reducing associated carbon emissions, and the water industry has made various efforts to support this. Applied new methods of construction can lower the total resource input, and sustainable new materials such as ‘green’ concrete and steel are introduced. Operations benefit from more efficient pumping, lifting, mixing, aeration, heating, drying, and air compression. Wastewater treatment plants are re-considered as prosumers and facilities for resource recovery. And if the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through weathering of silicate minerals and generation of alkalinity in receiving waters can be understood, enhanced and controlled, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) might add an important contribution of the sector to meeting net zero carbon.
In many industries with networks of supply and demand chains, decentralization can simplify and accelerate workflows, processes, and decisions. This improves production and decision-making in complex and pressured systems. Decentralizing water information is enhanced by creating an open Connected Data Environment (CDE) in which various data sources and applications co-exist and provide easily accessible data. Physically, distributed water systems facilitate circular economy solutions, including locally integrated water management, and are especially attractive for non-potable water applications. However, they can clash against legacy investments and often only prevail in greenfield developments. Hence, sudden step-changes aren’t feasible. Instead, intelligent complementation can foster decentralization over time.
Well-prepared water companies and utilities are now embracing digitalization, such as by creating Digital Twins of water systems
Like other industries, the water sector benefits from a democratization of technology, information, and knowledge. This trend promotes low-threshold access to advanced technology and data. UX design, open-source capabilities, immersive visibility, and seamless connectivity between individual devices and systems can be named as enablers. In order to allow the best brains to collaborate and innovate at speed, organizations are creating new ways of working that promote a culture of sharing, supported by a more collaborative planning and design methodology (BIM). However, this implies the need to educate and train employees so that they can keep up with and benefit from disruptive changes in their jobs and working environment.
The cross-sectional approach to leveraging data drives much of the previous three response patterns. Well-prepared water companies and utilities are now embracing digitalization, such as by creating Digital Twins of water systems. Digitalization improves insights and efficiency by combining IT, OT and Engineering Technology (ET). Interoperability with and integration into existing infrastructure is key to going beyond the status quo and making advancements toward automation. However, a rebound effect could counteract the digitalization of the water sector. Less resource consumption, longer lifetimes, and recyclability of digital elements and building blocks can make a difference.
The water industry must find acceptable and balanced answers to the challenges that come with global megatrends. Water is a vital public resource and is simply too intertwined with other critical elements like energy, food, and land use. As a result of keeping up with changing demands, the water sector will remain a constant and exciting field of creativity and innovation.