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Build back better: The critical role of water-smart cities

  • Build back better: The critical role of water-smart cities

Last century public policies and technologies are no longer adequate to ensure water for economic development, business growth, social well-being and ecosystem health. The water sector faces multiple threats which have become acute as a result of the pandemic. Water scarcity is driven by increased demand and poor public policies, and poor water quality is the result of poor public policies (think: lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan), ongoing contamination (think: nutrient loading from non-point sources) and aging and underfunded infrastructure.

Climate change only exacerbates these water scarcity and quality trends.

The pandemic revealed the fragility of our water infrastructure but has also accelerated interest and adoption of digital technologies. We are now witnessing the scaling of digital (smart) technologies for water and wastewater utilities, homes, communities and cities. The digital transformation of the water sector was well underway in 2019 and has significantly increased over the past several months. Water and wastewater utility sectors are now exploring and deploying digital technologies to manage infrastructure assets, remotely monitor water quality within watersheds, support workforce augmentation and monitor for COVID-19 in wastewater.

Digital technologies enable a shift from exclusively centralized water systems to localized (distributed and decentralized) systems

Not only are water and wastewater utilities adopting digital technologies. The emergence of digital water technologies in homes and communities are enabling more localized water and wastewater treatment systems. The convergence of digital technology adoption by the water and wastewater sector, homes and cities will foster more sustainable and resilient cities when faced with increased demand and “black swan” events such as a pandemic.

Smart water policies

With water resources facing multiple challenges, there is a need to move towards smart water policies that ensure good quality water of sufficient quantity for all users, both human and natural. In particular, smart water policies need to be cantered around demand management.

Traditionally, urban water managers, faced with increasing demand for water alongside varying levels of supplies, have relied on large-scale, supply-side infrastructural projects, such as dams and reservoirs, to meet increased demands for water. This supply-side approach, however, is under increasing pressure from climate change, rapid population, economic growth and even land-use changes impacting the availability of good quality water of sufficient quantities.

The pandemic revealed the fragility of our water infrastructure but has also accelerated interest and adoption of digital technologies

To ensure adequate water supplies, water managers are turning towards demand-side management which aims to improve the provisions of existing water supplies before new supplies are developed. There are two types of policy tools available to achieve urban water security: fiscal tools and non-fiscal tools.

Fiscal tools include water pricing and the use of subsidies and rebates to modify water users’ behavior in a predictable, cost-effective way. Urban water managers typically price water using increasing block tariff rates, which contain different prices for two or more pre-specified quantities (blocks) of water with the price increasing with each successive block, or two-part tariff systems which contain a fixed charge and variable charge.

Subsidies and rebates meanwhile are used to encourage water users to make sustainable consumption choices. For instance, subsidies are commonly used to encourage the uptake of water-saving devices and water-efficient appliances or technologies while rebates are commonly used to accelerate the replacement of old water-using fixtures and appliances. Overall, positive incentives are found to be more effective than disincentives in promoting water conservation.

The digital transformation of the water sector was well underway in 2019 and has significantly increased over the past several months

Examples of fiscal policy tools to encourage water conservation and water efficiency include:

  • The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission offering rebates for a variety of domestic and non-domestic appliance and equipment upgrades
  • Singapore’s Public Utilities Board revising its water prices upwards in two phases to meet future demand while delivering a high quality and reliable supply of water.

Urban water managers can also rely on a range of non-fiscal tools to ensure adequate supplies, including regulations, as well as education and public awareness. Regulations often used include permanent and temporary ordinances that restrict certain types of water use during specified times and/or restrict the level of water use to a specific amount. Temporary and permanent ordinances are often used for a variety of purposes including restricting water levels during droughts as well as for ensuring new developments and renovations implement water-efficient fixtures and appliances. Meanwhile, education and public awareness are important to generate an understanding of water scarcity and create the acceptance of the need to implement water conservation programs.

With water resources facing multiple challenges, there is a need to move towards smart water policies that ensure good quality water

Examples of non-fiscal tools to encourage the wise use of water include:

  • The City of Boston enacting its Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance that requires the city’s medium- and large-sized buildings to report their annual energy and water use
  • Scottish Water developing a series of games for children to understand the water cycle and understand the importance of water efficiency

The digital transformation of water is well framed in the World Economic Forum Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water report. It is just one more aspect of society that has transformed as a result of digital advancements. These technologies are everywhere: in transportation through services such as mobility on demand and micro-mobility, in healthcare in the form of digital record keeping and robotics, in education where digital readers, tablets and gamification are used to teach, and in the power sector in the form of smart devices and advanced analytics for optimizing network flows. 

Several recent reports highlight the ongoing digital transformation of water including the International Water Association and Xylem publication Digital Water: Industry Leaders Chart the Digital Transformation, as well as the report Accelerating the Digital Water Utility (PDF), which is focused on the water and wastewater utility sector and geographically focused digital water technology solutions.

The applications of digital technologies for water and wastewater utilities are increasing. Digital technologies are being used across the digital water value chain from the watershed, utility operations and connecting to the customer and consumer. 

The primary focus of digital water technology applications has been in managing infrastructure assets. Digital technologies are now used to:

  • Identify leaks in pipes through satellite data and analytics (for example, Utilis)
  • Monitor and predict treatment membrane performance using artificial intelligence (for example, Plutoshift)
  • Support the workforce with access to asset construction information (for example, Redeye)
  • Conduct real-time monitoring of stormwater sewer system (for example, Smartcover)

We are also now able to provide wastewater network intelligence that visualizes, analyzes, predicts and pinpoints network behavior upstream (for example, Kando). A complete suite of digital technology solutions are available to monitor asset performance and quickly react or predict system failure.

Smart policies and digitally intelligent cities will be better capable to respond to events like pandemics and extreme weather events

The far-reaching nature of digital applications

Digital water technology applications are not confined to managing utility assets through sensors and water use monitoring through smart meters. Digital applications now include the use of satellite data and analytics to monitor water quality within source areas (Gybe), flood prediction (Cloud to Street) and also to vastly improve connectivity to the consumer and customers (Water Smart and dropcountr).

The application of digital technologies to build more sustainable and resilient water infrastructure is also scaling in parallel with the move to smart water homes. Systems that monitor real-time lead concentrations at the tap (spout), smart tap filters (TAPP Water) along with leak detection in home plumbing (Conservation Labs) are being deployed.

Digital technologies enable a shift from exclusively centralized water systems to localized (distributed and decentralized) systems. This includes innovative water supply systems such as air moisture capture (Zero Mass Water and Water-Gen) and small-scale treatment systems (Organica and Aqwise). As we have seen in the energy sector, small scale localized systems such as solar, are more resilient to extreme weather events.

Smart water utilities and homes make the reality of water-smart cities within our reach.

Conclusion

The pandemic has raised the question of whether there will be an exodus from major global cities. For us, regardless of the outcomes, cities of all sizes and locations have an opportunity to rethink public policies, infrastructure and technologies to be more resilient and sustainable.

Innovation in public policy and the adoption of digital technologies will create truly smart cities. Smart policies and digitally intelligent cities will be better capable to respond to black swan events such as pandemics, extreme weather events and the strains of growth.

The time is now to chart a course for water-smart cities to ensure we can deliver water for economic development, business growth, social well-being and ecosystem growth. We must build back better.

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