Water utilities are responsible for our most precious resource – but a perfect storm of climate change, ageing infrastructure and rising demand is threatening to interrupt supply.
Water managers are under increasing pressure to do more with less. Rising to this challenge requires a step-change in how systems are operated, monitored and maintained.
The perfect storm of challenges
Global trends, from climate change to rapid urbanisation, are fuelling a water crisis that cannot be ignored.
Patrick Decker, President and Chief Executive Ofﬁcer at smart water company, Xylem Inc, says: “As the global water crisis deepens, the challenges facing water and wastewater managers are intensifying.
“Climate change poses significant risks for water networks, from water stress to ﬂooding. Ageing infrastructure, suffering from a history of under-investment, is crumbling under a growing population.”
In the next 25 years, the number of people living in areas of water scarcity is expected to hit 1.8m. At the same time, flooding, and the associated risks of contamination, is becoming a regular occurrence.
In November, for example, days of torrential rain caused part of Whaley Bridge’s Toddbrook Reservoir to collapse, resulting in headline news and the evacuation of more than 1500 people.
Incidents such as this one, which saw Xylem engineers use five submersible pumps to reduce water levels by more than 10m in little under a week, are only expected to become more frequent.
Soaring demand also poses a problem. By 2050, an estimated 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban centres, relying on ageing infrastructure. Global demand is expected to be 55% higher than it was in 2015.
Compounding these problems for water managers is the rising price of energy, which accounts, on average, for 11% of operating costs, and an increasingly stringent regulatory environment.
“Managers cannot afford to stand still. Now is the time to act to get ahead of these complex water issues,” said Patrick.
“The good news is that the solutions required to be successful in this effort are, in some cases, already available, while others are rapidly emerging.”
Smart water technologies, he explained, allowed water managers to collect, share and analyse data from equipment and networks. This information enables proactive decision-making – it can help find leaks, drive efficiency, lower energy use, predict equipment failure and even ensure regulatory compliance.
The implications, both in terms of protecting water security and cutting costs, are hard to ignore.
Early indications are that smart water management could save global utilities between $12.5bn and $15bn every year, mainly from reductions in capital and operational expenditure.
And if the figures are anything to go by, the industry seems keen to embrace the opportunity. Since 2017, 260 smart water projects have been announced worldwide, and investment in the technology is expected to top $14bn by 2024.
One such project was initiated by Thames Water, which worked with Xylem to install smart meters across its network of 15 million customers.
Daily data reports allowed the utility to locate leaks and other sources of non-revenue water quickly, and increased customer engagement led to a 13% decrease in water consumption.
“The smart network delivered multiple benefits including more equitable billing, prompt identification of leaks and pipe ruptures, and an enhanced customer experience,” said Patrick, adding that the monitoring of pressure and temperature gave the company a much better understanding of the overall network performance.
Another, in Italy, saw Xylem work with Metropolitana Milanese to install a smart leak detection tool. It found 23 large leaks, many of which would have been undetectable with traditional equipment, in a section of main measuring just 5.5 miles.
Said Patrick: “Focused repair works will allow the utility to extend the life of the pipeline and reduce water loss, thus improving the overall service to its customers.
“The expected savings in water loss from repairing the leaks will pay back the costs of the project in approximately three years, including the cost of repair to the damaged section.”
Joining the data dots
There are three elements to smart water management. When they are aligned and connected, they provide a window into exactly what is happening within the system.
Intelligent equipment includes pumps, mixers, treatment technologies and sensors that can self-optimise to improve performance, cutting the time and effort involved in monitoring and maintaining equipment.
Smart networks collect information across several pieces of intelligent equipment, enabling real-time, remote and continuous system management.
Digital solutions can then run that real-time data through algorithms to model any number of predicted outcomes. This enables water managers to conduct predictive maintenance, prevent sewage and stormwater overflows, and review asset conditions.
When used intelligently, smart water technologies help managers identify and respond to problems reactively, while enabling proactive system management. It also means they can easily optimise processes to reduce energy use or more efficiently treat wastewater, for example.
The future is now
Smart water technologies are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Utilities the world over are already employing the benefits from these new methods of reducing costs and inefficiencies, driving down waste, and ensuring compliance.
“The adoption of smart water solutions has already begun, and the global evolution continues apace,” said Patrick.
“Let’s build on this momentum and accelerate the water industry’s migration to a smart, resource-efﬁcient future. Let’s embrace the smart technology opportunity. Let’s solve water.”