Water shortage: can technology help cut water consumption?

We are in the midst of a global water crisis. According to the United Nations, water scarcity already affects more than 40% of the world’s population. As such, clean water and sanitation is the sixth of the UN’s sustainable development goals, its call-to-action to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. Technology, including the Internet of Things (IoT), can help organizations and individuals use water more efficiently and cut consumption overall.

Under current trends, water demand will exceed supply by 40% in 2030. This means that to meet demand, governments will need to spend $200 billion a year, up from a historical average of between $40 to $45 billion annually.

This has significant implications, both for people’s health and economic output. Many industries, from food and drink to manufacturing, textiles to automotive, require huge volumes of water in which to operate. Industrial or agricultural water consumption accounts for 89% of freshwater extraction (domestic households use the remainder).

This, in turn, has played a part in linking economic growth to water consumption. While there are notable outliers (such as Australia, where water consumption declined by 40% between 2001 and 2009 while the economy grew by more than 30%), spiraling water usage is a consequence of economic acceleration.

Within the UN Sustainable Development Goals are eight targets, among which are two objectives related to the efficient use and management of water. The first aims to “substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.” The second wants to “implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.”

Put another way – if the world wants to improve the availability of clean water for all, better water management will be critical.

The collective responsibility

Industries are waking up to both the impact they are having on water consumption and their responsibilities. In agriculture, Cargill announced a new set of targets around water, including committing to restoring 600 billion liters of water in priority watersheds by 2030. Developed in conjunction with the World Resources Institute, Cargill’s approach seeks to improve its own consumption and have a local impact.

This is something that is usually lacking in publicly announced commitments, said Sara Walker, Senior Manager, Water Quality & Agriculture at the WRI. “While for years companies have set targets that try to address global water issues, the local nature of shared water challenges has meant targets aren’t necessarily meaningful in the areas in which companies operate or from where they source. But Cargill’s latest ambition sets targets specific to the catchment context and severity of the local water challenges.”

Another multinational trying to change how it consumes water is Unilever. With a significant market share in cleaning, cosmetics and food/drink, the Anglo-Dutch giant influences water usage in many ways, from how much customers use to how its suppliers extract freshwater. For example, in food and drink, it works with farmers on improving water efficiency, implementing approaches such as drip irrigation to reduce usage and manage availability.

Elsewhere, automotive manufacturer Groupe PSA has reduced water consumption per vehicle four-fold since 1995, thanks to developing treatment and recycling programs.

From connected pipes to efficient water cleaning

But while there is a significant opportunity to reduce water consumption via improved methodologies (whether Cargill’s focus on local efforts or Unilever’s drive towards more efficient irrigation methods), there is also the role of technology to consider.

For instance, the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can help track water quality, from treatment works right through to pipes. They can also monitor plant operational performance, checking the ratio of incoming water versus finished product liquid (for instance, at a drinks manufacturer or bottling plant). Augmented reality and remote assistance can shorten the response times to critical problems, even in difficult-to-access utility sites. Other sensors can enable predictive maintenance so that water-related machinery problems are captured before they occur.

Connected technology is also being deployed on wastewater treatment. Optimizing plant operations can help reduce costs (including the use of energy and chemicals in cleaning water), which can help expand capacity without requiring a corresponding increase in investment – all while maintaining discharged water quality to meet compliance requirements.

For example, Veolia Water Technologies’ Hubgrade Performance was used at Nosedo WWTP, a wastewater treatment facility near Milan. Helping the plant save €400,000, among the efficiencies the tool realized was a reduction of 40-60% in the use of precipitation chemicals. This was of critical importance to the plant, as it aims to treat wastewater “not only according to environmental directives but also for the possibility to have a circular use of the water,” according to Francesca Pizza, process manager at Nosedo WWTP.

A subsidiary of Veolia is also behind one of the largest LoRa connected-object deployments in France. Birdz, an IoT business focusing on the remote metering of energy consumption for Smart Cities, is working with Orange to connect three million water meters to the Orange LoRa network, covering over 30,000 municipalities and 95% of the population of Metropolitan France. Through the network, Birdz’s customers, which include local communities, manufacturers, third parties and retailers, can visualize and predict their consumption, while at the same time, detecting atypical events such as water leaks and instances of fraud.

Helping to reduce water consumption at scale

What the likes of Birdz, Hubgrade and the deployment of IoT sensors are doing is giving big water consumers the data and tools they need to make better decisions. In doing so, they can align those choices with other initiatives, such as company-wide approaches to irrigation or tackling shared water challenges, to reduce water consumption on a much larger scale.

Read more on how Orange is working with the likes of Veolia to deploy technology in the fight against water scarcity.

Josh Turner
Josh Turner

I am a technology writer with a decade of experience in business, technology and logistics. From starting off my career writing questions for a TV quiz show, I’m now spending my time looking at how the world of business is going digital and transforming a variety of sectors and industries.