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When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink,” he did not have the 21st century’s global water situation in mind. But, allowing for poetic license, he was not far from correct.

In what is becoming an increasingly common story these days, many cities are likely to run out of drinking water. The water crisis is now ranked as one of the greatest global risks in terms of impact to society according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risk Report. As cities around the world increasingly experience water security challenges, the adage ”water-is-the-new-oil” has become cliché. This is similar to what has become of ‘data-is-the-new-oil,’ which reflects the economic value of data that can be refined and used in various ways for successful digital transformation. However, there is a troubling difference between these two ideas: oil is a scarce and finite resource whereas data is new and fresh,  an abundant and infinite resource.

If we were to think of data as the new water instead, it may lead us to ponder over the role  data and digital transformation can take on in the water sector  to achieve water security and sustainable development for all, to foster more efficient use of water, and ultimately, to democratize access to safely managed water and sanitation so that no one is left behind.

Integrating data and the digital transformation in the water sector can help conserve water resources, connect the dots between water users and water related policies, lead to behavioral change, spur innovation, and strengthen the resilience of communities, especially in a fragile context like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this integration requires political will, a robust infrastructure, good governance, sustainable funding, and long-term investment with engaged commitment from all stakeholders!

The latest cases in Chennai (India), and Cape Town (South Africa) are not unique in terms of a “Day Zero” water crisis. Day Zero gave us a stark reminder of what can happen when water security becomes fragile and what can happen if we keep doing business as usual with water management in the modern era. 

Sudden compromises of water security threaten many countries today. There are already about 700 million people in 43 countries who suffer from water scarcity, and almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa². Moreover, water crises in areas with a high to very high risk of droughts, like the Middle East, could displace between 24 million and 700 million people.

Digital transformation is everywhere. It enables organizations and utilities to achieve effective asset lifecycle management. However, it instills fear and misapprehension in the water sector. When considering such a paradigm shift, either proactively or reactively, it is crucial to understand how digital transformation can work for the water sector.

One lesson that we have learned from the progressive failure in water-sector reforms is that we have to look before we leap. It means that strategy —not Technology— drives digital transformation in the water sector.

We define “urban water security” as:The dynamic capacity of the water system and water stakeholders to safeguard sustainable and equitable access to adequate quantities and acceptable quality of water that is continuously, physically, and legally available at an affordable cost for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”

How can digital transformation achieve a paradigm shift for the water utilities of the future in water-scarce cities?

Many water utilities today face the fundamental challenge of doing more with less to fulfill the human right to water and sanitation in the face of unstoppable pressure from increasing demands (due to population growth and urbanization) and climate change. This fundamental right is linked to traditional water management of linear water systems, the “big pipes in, big pipes out” transfer model, to regulatory and environmental public funds that are insufficient and poorly targeted, and to policies set out without aligning objectives with the required resources and societal challenges. All these challenges put great pressure on the way water is managed in cities, the way the service is operated, and the business and revenue model’s framework. Thus, the system ends up operating in a vicious cycle of water management, causing chronic problems such as a high level of non-revenue water and an intermittent water supply.

Urban Water Security Moscow

Fountain in the Crimean Embankment, Moscow, Russia.

Considering these challenges, “business as usual” is not an option to achieve the sustainable development goal 6 on safely managed water and sanitation. To tackle the above challenges, digital water management provides promising potentials through the (IREAP) framework (Infrastructure, Repair, Economic Awareness, and Pressure) as a way of systematically shifting the vicious cycle of water management into a virtuous and sustainable cycle. Advanced techniques via a real-time dynamic hydraulic model, leakage detection, pressure management, and water demand forecasting, among others, enable the utility to understand the system better and to make informed decisions based on real-time data. 

Digital transformation for urban water security requires a comprehensive approach to the way we manage water today, working to engage all water stakeholders —not just engineers and typical water stakeholders, but also customers within communities. This allows the water community to harness the potential of digital water and to assess and address all water-related challenges, to shift water scarce cities into water secure cities, especially for those left behind and for the poor people who are being hit first and worst by effects of water crisis and climate change.

One lesson that we learned from the progressive failure in water sector reforms is we have to look before we leap. It means that strategy —not Technology— drives digital transformation in the water sector

Hassan AboelngaVice Chair of Middle East Water Forum and Researcher