The water sector has reached an inflexion point. As the industry grapples with the escalating challenges of accessibility, affordability, and resilience to climate change, the need to modernise our water systems has never been greater. Utilities around the world are rising to the challenge by embracing digital solutions to optimise operations and deliver powerful outcomes for communities. Against this backdrop, Roxana Marin, Vice President, Central and Northern Europe at Xylem, outlines why digital is fast becoming an operational imperative, and how utilities are putting data to work to unlock the digital potential.
How important is digital transformation for the water industry?
Utilities globally are facing compounding challenges. Ageing water systems can lose more than 30% of the water they should deliver. Utility operators are also dealing with increasingly extreme weather, including catastrophic storms and more frequent droughts. In Europe, we are witnessing the devastating impacts of this in real-time, with more than a third of the continent currently under a drought warning and approximately 10% experiencing severe drought.
Digital solutions allow utility operators to bridge the information gaps within their water systems and invest capital in the right places
We must modernise our water systems to make our communities more resilient. This means using digital technologies to optimise water management and improve performance. Digital solutions allow utility operators to bridge the information gaps within their water systems and invest capital in the right places. The reality is that digital is no longer an option, but an imperative to address the world’s major water issues.
What does a typical digital transformation journey look like?
There are thousands of water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities across Europe. Each one is different, with a unique set of circumstances that are specific to their environment. So, there is no single prescribed journey – but there are some common principles to executing successful digital strategies.
The recent paper from Xylem, Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation, developed in collaboration with Bluefield Research, captures perspectives from 18 global water utility leaders and experts on the realities of “going digital”. While the group consulted for the paper spans the scope of utility sizes and resources, one common thread that ran through their experience was the need to adopt a thoughtful, systemic approach. The most successful transformations are the ones that build incrementally over time. At Xylem, our job is to meet customers where they are on their digital journey with solutions that meet their specific needs.
How are utilities in Europe deploying digital solutions?
One of the key factors in driving digital transformation is breaking down barriers and bringing information together in a way that empowers utility operators. If you put people at the heart of your digital strategy, you really can achieve something significant.
My colleagues in France have been working closely with Syndicat d’eau de l’Anjou (SEA), a regional drinking water wholesaler serving 153,000 people across 65 municipalities. SEA has achieved tremendous results by bringing together data from several platforms – including SCADA, GIS, and customer information systems – and real-time monitoring instruments. This solution gives operators more time in the field, reducing the distance between them and their customers.
If you put people at the heart of your digital strategy, you really can achieve something significant
The utility’s philosophy has always been to use data and analytics to help people do their best work, delivering more value to the community in the process. It is an approach that has paid real dividends to the utility, and they are now exploring more advanced technologies to unlock greater operational efficiencies. Nearby in Spain, Consorci d’Aigües de Tarragona (CAT), a regional bulk-water provider serving 800,000 people, and 25 major industrial clients, have been using digital technologies to optimise operations since 2010. The utility began by automating treatment operations and later implemented a digital twin to reduce energy consumption.
CAT has also used digital solutions in its pipeline replacement and rehabilitation programme, having suffered a catastrophic failure in 2020. With advanced sensing tools such as electromagnetic and acoustic monitoring inspections, the utility rolled out an ambitious condition assessment programme to evaluate more than 9,000 pipes. The data determined that 31 pipes were damaged and needed repair, while five were about to fail. That level of visibility helped the utility make precision investments and repairs – a move that saved them millions in Capex without interrupting service.
What advice do you have for those utilities who are looking to get started?
‘Big bang’ transformations are rare. As mentioned, the most successful transformations are those that build incrementally over time. Success requires a sustainable pace of change, putting quality data to work, and building thoughtfully on each success.
My advice would be to get started, today, but do so in a way that makes sense for your operation. Put strategy first and deploy solutions that explicitly align with strategic priorities. This will lead to investments that deliver measurable value and create momentum for further innovation.
Waterschap Aa en Maas, a large utility responsible for sustainably purifying 300 million litres of wastewater for more than 778,000 residents and businesses in the province of Brabant, Netherlands, is just one example of a utility that has made progress over time, at its own pace. Having prioritised investments in technology since the 1970’s, the utility is now more than 50 years into its digital transformation journey, yet it continues to explore and implement new technologies at every turn, iterating towards more sophisticated systems as it goes. This approach has allowed waterschap Aa en Maas to keep moving and keep innovating at a sustainable pace, while also ensuring that investments align with its strategic priorities and goals./p>
What is next for the wider water industry’s digital transformation?
As many utilities have shown, digital transformation can deliver efficiency and optimisation gains that move the dial. This is vital as the water industry addresses its greatest challenge – delivering resilient services while reducing emissions.
The water sector is at the centre of the extreme weather impacts caused by climate change. In a recent study sponsored by Xylem, we found that most utilities list climate change among their top three challenges. They are feeling the impact.
Utilities will also have to deal with more regulations focused on reducing emissions. If we think ahead to five years, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are likely to be measured as a standard part of operational key performance indicators.
The water sector is at the centre of the extreme weather impacts caused by climate change
There is a clear link between decarbonisation and operational efficiency, which is where innovative technology can make a real difference. For some utilities, the focus might be on using digital technology to reduce energy consumption. For others, it could be deploying innovative solutions to make assets more efficient and avoid or streamline the large, carbon-intensive capital projects that historically would have been the principal way to solve a problem.
Stadtwerke Trier (SWT), a utility based in the Eifel region of Germany, is a good example of what this might look like in action. Through ongoing investments in advanced process optimization tools and the adoption of renewable energy sources, the utility has realised substantial energy savings in wastewater treatment and drinking water distribution. Today, about 90% of the drinking water demand across the region is covered by renewable sources.
It is incredible what can be achieved by unlocking the power of digital. Every step on the digital journey brings the industry closer to achieving a common goal of building a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable water future for all. Climate change and decarbonisation may be among our greatest challenges, but the digital transformation of our water systems is one of our greatest solutions.