Necessity drives change. Before the global health pandemic, the water industry had come a long way in terms of adopting new technologies, but still had far to go. However, the coronavirus has obliged many companies to rethink their business model for the future, fast-tracking digital transformation to adequately respond to the new requirements of social distancing, travel bans and remote working.
We speak with Dragan Savic, CEO of KWR Water Research Institute, as well as the Chair of the IWA Digital Water Programme Committee, on how the current crisis will influence the digitalization of the water sector.
Question: The Dutch water research institute KWR, which you are CEO of, was one of the first entities to detect the virus gene fragments of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. What possibilities do you think this opens for the water industry?
Answer: In general, wastewater (sewage) monitoring has the potential to become a useful tool for observing societal trends, since it is a direct reflection of the human microbiome and hence of the health of a community. This is not entirely new as wastewater monitoring has been used previously to, for example, track polio viruses, assess illegal drug use, human exposure to pesticides or even for comparison of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine consumption in different countries. This is pushing future research towards the limits of what can be detected by wastewater monitoring but also opens new avenues for improved processing, analysis and presentation of results. The COVID-19 outbreak has given impetus to the water industry and their research providers worldwide to collaborate on these issues and use all of their creativity to develop new tools and solutions. In the end, this will be to the benefit of the industry and wider society.
Q: What sewer surveillance data do you recommend for the detection of SARS-CoV-2? Can you tell us a bit more about MEDiLOO® Smart Toilet Data?
A: With much lower costs when compared to clinical testing of individuals and assuming logistics and privacy issues could be resolved, wastewater surveillance data could be collected at basically all levels of spatial and temporal resolution, from individual households or companies, to street or city levels, to country level and at annual, seasonal, monthly, weekly or daily basis. In addition to sewer monitoring data anywhere in the system, it is useful to collect data before treatment of wastewater (i.e., influent) and after sewage treatment plant and compare those results with surface or drinking water. With tracking epidemics such as COVID-19, it is appropriate to collect sewer data at least on a weekly or biweekly basis for cities larger than a few hundred thousand inhabitants. In locations with central sewage treatment plants (STPs), this is most easily achieved by influent sampling at STPs. The sampling frequency can be reduced when there are clear signs that the number of new infections over time has decreased to a post-peak/post-pandemic level. Conversely, the frequency can be increased again when there are indications of increasing numbers of new infections over time.
I believe that the consequence of the pandemic will be felt in the industry over a prolonged period, at least for a couple of years
My understanding is that MEDILOO is a ‘smart toilet’ that has non-invasive infection screening capabilities by using an array of sensors (Brdjanovic D. (2020). Smart toilets for urine and stool analysis. Nature Biomedical Engineering). This could be a good complement to sewage/wastewater monitoring in low and medium-income countries. The ability to integrate MEDILOO and sewage monitoring data and store it in the cloud could provide better information for raising an early warning, for providing informed decisions about the infection rates in the population, how best to intervene and when to relax the epidemic mitigation measures.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many water companies to turn to digitalization to better respond to the health crisis. What progress in terms of digitalization do you see in the near future?
A: Of course, like all sectors, ours has found out that working at a distance using digital tools works for almost all roles in our organizations. Laggards have become believers. This will make it easier for utility employees to accept additional tooling to support their work. The importance of the availability, accessibility and sharing of data, tooling and computational resources have become more evident as well. This crisis will surely give a boost to data FAIRness (findability, accessibility, interoperability, reusability), open sourcing analytical tools and open science. Dashboard and other visualizations will make it easier for operators, decision makers and the general public to see and understand what is going on. But just as importantly, the further development of digital crisis scenario exploration tools will help to be prepared for future crises, allowing the rapid evaluation of responses and their effectiveness. However, we shouldn’t forget the human side of digitalization in the water sector and the need for training to allow everybody to take advantage of digital technologies.
Q: What recommendations would you give utility decision makers that are accelerating their adoption of digital solutions in these challenging times?
A: I would suggest that they have a look at what the IWA digital water report has to say about digitalization in the water sector. The report was published last year! It provides an in-depth analysis, clear actions for moving up the adoption curve and many illustrations from utilities around the world at different stages of the digital transformation.
Like all sectors, ours has found out that working at a distance using digital tools works for almost all roles in our organizations
Q: In your first interview with SWM, you mentioned climate change is one the biggest challenges the water sector is currently facing. Do you think COVID-19 will change companies’ priorities regarding this issue?
A: The climate change issue is here to stay with utilities, governments and population in general. However, this whole COVID-19 situation made me wonder how can the world move so quickly for mitigating one disaster and, in my opinion, move so slow with another, i.e., climate change. At the same time, it also gives me hope now that countries have learned from each other how to deal with COVID-19 and adapt mitigation measures to our own local conditions (environmental, economic and cultural), we should be able to take decisive steps in the direction of mitigating climate change impact. Therefore, the issue of climate change will stay high on the list of priorities for each water utility director.
Q: Cybersecurity was a priority concern before the crisis, but now it takes on a new dimension. Is the water industry prepared to deal with digital threats?
A: Water utilities have been aware of cybersecurity concerns and have gone a long way towards reducing risks to increasing security levels. Remote working as a result of COVID-19 and the push for digitalization will inevitably increase their activities in providing appropriate protection for their cyber and physical infrastructure.
The importance of the availability, accessibility and sharing of data, tooling and computational resources have become more evident
Q: Many countries have been or are still in lockdown and certain water companies put in place remote work for their employees. Once the pandemic is under control, do you think companies will continue to apply these measures? How can digital tools help in this case?
A: I believe that the consequence of the pandemic will be felt in the industry over a prolonged period, at least for a couple of years, probably even longer. Now that we have all experienced the advantages and disadvantages of remote working, I think there will be a balanced change in how utilities organise their work. For example, there will be more working from home, but there are still people who will not be able to do that, either due to the type of work they do or due to their home situation. Therefore, a flexible approach will probably prevail where individual employees will have more say in how do they work. I believe that would not help maintain the level of service provided by utilities, but possibly improve it. Exciting times are ahead of us!