Is Technology the Answer to the Water Crises?

Water – or lack thereof - has the potential to destroy lives and drastically affect livelihoods. For seven consecutive years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report has ranked water in the top five risks to humanity and the planet. In fact, the vast majority of disasters predicted in the next decade – including climate change and extreme weather, natural and man-made disasters and irreversible changes in biodioversity and ecosystems – are related to water.

From heatwaves to droughts, decimated crops and the resulting spikes in food prices, water was the central issue at the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Alex Mung, head of Water Initiative at the WEF, told Raconteur: “Water insecurity will continue to cause ripple effects across global supply chains from manufacturing to agriculture, it will strain geopolitical ties and it will place untold pressure on the world’s poorest populations. The resilience of our society, both in terms of economic growth and human security, must be addressed through a water lens.”

How should the issue of water be addressed on a global scale? The challenge is universal, requiring a collaborative solution that crosses industry, socio-economic and geographical boundaries.  

Says Mung, “… water is chronically undervalued and, in some cases, not valued at all. Only by embedding its true financial, social and environmental value into policymaking, governance, and financial and risk reporting can we instill a better mentality.”

Water has reminded in the top-five risk/

If the current approaches to the water crises have not worked, what’s the solution? It seems to be that technology may provide a unified system for monitoring and addressing the challenges at hand.

“A key challenge is obtaining and accessing a complete, up-to-date picture of supply and demand to understand competing needs and trade-offs. Too often, issues of data access, fragmentation and quality constrain decision-makers,” said Mung.

Satellite imagery and other Earth observation tools are proving to be of help. For example, NASA and France will run a joint satellite mission in 2021 to provide the first-ever global survey of the planet’s water. The radar technology will show change over time in the Earth’s bodies of water.

The private sector is also working towards the same goals: tech giant Microsoft is using smart sensors in the agricultural industry to analyse soil conditions, and drones to take images of fields, which are in turn interpreted by the artificial intelligence technology to ensure that water is delivered optimally for the best crop outcomes.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution -- the digital transformation that includes technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics and more – is believed to be the solution for collecting, combining and analysing previously unavailable data in order to address water issues on a comprehensive, global scale.

The WEF’s Water Initiative teamed up with the World Bank’s Water Global Practice and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to form a collaboration called the Water Security Rewired to look at the possible applications of technology in a number of areas. Already, intelligent applications are being used in traditional water and wastewater systems, identifying and repairing leaks remotely, and training employees. The Internet of Things (Iot) supports real-time monitoring of water use and quality. Blockchain is improving the transparency concerning water availability. Nanotechnology may unleash new water sources and improve wastewater treatment.

“Combined with new forms of public-private collaboration, these technologies can support decision-makers across industry, government and civil society to balance trade-offs, identify common priorities and make smarter investment choices,” said Mung.

However, Mung emphasized that the involvement of the private sector alone is not sufficient for the change: governments also need to get involved. “Governments must remain at the centre of the water innovation agenda. They are ultimately responsible for ensuring tecnologies are developed responsibly. Public authorities will also need to develop new policy frameworks for how emerging technologies are tested and refined,” he said.

He added: “Building a strong culture of innovation is critical for the global water community’s ability to fully harness the fourth industrial revolution.”