Interview: Smart Water Grid innovations can tackle water problems in India, says IBM

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In this first article under the ‘Sustainable Technology Series’, Dr. Cameron Brooks, Director-Smart Water Management, IBM talks about the existing water crisis, smart water grids and the smart water management solutions being offered by IBM.

Dr. Cameron Brooks is leading a worldwide team of technical experts as the director of Smarter Water Management at IBM under the Big Green Innovations umbrella. Prior to this role, Dr. Brooks was program director for the IBM Blue Gene supercomputer.  He has been employed at IBM for 14 years, and has successfully led several initiatives involved in bringing innovative new technologies to market.  Dr. Brooks holds six U.S. patents and has authored over 20 technical papers.

Despite the fact that water is an abundant resource, do you think there is a water crisis existing today?

There is indeed a water crisis today.

The fact is that while water is one of the world's most abundant substances - it is also fast becoming one of the planet's most stressed resources. Access to clean water has emerged as a critical issue affecting economic activity, development and business around the world.

While the world's population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources has grown six-fold. Within the next fifty years, the world population is expected to increase by another 40 to 50 percent. With this population growth - coupled with ever-increasing industrialization and urbanization – the demand for water could soon outpace the supply. There is a high socio-economic cost associated with a water shortage or lack of access to clean, drinkable water. Also, a lack of usable water would have a negative impact across all industries and in all corners of the world. Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous smaller countries, may soon trigger the same in larger countries, such as India and China.

What do you think is the reason for this water crisis?

One major reason of this water crisis is our current inefficient water management systems, owing to which, one in five people on the planet do not have adequate access to safe, clean drinking water. Regardless of industry or geography, smarter water management remains an issue faced by everyone on the planet.  Society and business are facing increasingly complex challenges when it comes to understanding and managing water resources on this planet.

Increasing regulatory pressures, climate change, aging workforce, failing infrastructure, growing focus on social responsibility, and environmentally related risk management are forcing organizations to reassess the impact of water management on their economic well being.

Is there a role that IT can play in sustainable water management?

Fortunately many advanced information technology tools are now available to analyze the quality of water, and the effectiveness of treatment and distribution infrastructures.  Knowledge developed through this type of analysis can be used to help curtail pollution and stem inefficiencies. These new advancements in technology can help create more intelligent water systems, which will benefit our communities and our environment over the next century. To deal with this challenge, cities will need to take steps to reduce water waste, prevent runoff pollution in rivers and lakes, and purify water to make it drinkable and reduce the energy used in the transportation of water.

Interactive meters and sensors can be integrated into water and energy systems, providing real-time, accurate information about our water consumption so that we will be able to make better decisions about how and when we use this valuable resource. These key technologies span across Instrumented solutions such as sensors, meters, detectors, cameras, etc.;  Interconnected infrastructure or devices such as mobile /data networks, AMI, mobile phones, telemetry, etc. and Intelligent resources for asset management, predictive analytics, models (flood, water quality, pipe networks), decision support systems, visualization tools, GIS, etc.

What do you mean by Smart Water Management and can you tell us more about smart water grids?

Smart water management is all about applying monitoring and management technologies to help reduce the use of water, as well as related energy and chemicals. Managing water resources would include monitoring rivers, water reservoirs and pipes. Increasingly, utilities are transitioning to digital smart grids that collect data from networks of sensors and use advanced analytics to glean insight from that data. 

Smarter water management technologies can help companies reduce pollution, improve drinking water quality and increase the supply of usable water with a real-time advanced analytics system that tracks and reports on the condition of an infrastructure from filtration equipment, water pumps and valves to collection pipes, water storage basins and laboratory equipment.  The ability to monitor these systems in real-time means that potential problems such as a burst water main, a slow leak, a clogged drain or a hazardous sewage overflow can be quickly identified and resolved – or even predicted and prevented.  The system even taps into geo-spatial data to pinpoint the exact location of problem areas.  And as an added benefit, consumers who get a detailed breakdown of their water use tend to modify their consumption patterns accordingly. While information technology is not going to directly increase the water supply - it can guide us as to more efficient use.

Smart water grid is not a one-time technology but rather a road map to help water providers reach a more efficient, dynamic system.  No matter where they are on the roadmap solutions exist to help them move along – whether it is simple data integration and monitoring to more sophisticated sensor networks and analytics.

Smart water grid looks like a promising solution, then what is the challenge hindering in establishing it?

What we need today is intense collaboration amongst the stakeholders across geographies and the water ecosystem. As water management issues continue to mount and costs continue to increase, information technology and collaborative innovation will play an instrumental role helping communities, businesses, and governments deal with the tremendous complexity ahead. The combination of volumes of data, the need for mining across different and new data types and the demand for real-time responses requires a new kind of water management intelligence and models that encompass scalable, statistical algorithms, and massively parallel approaches. Current data infrastructures limited in scalability and interoperability inhibit timely and effective decision making across departments and organizations. Next generation water management systems need to be more flexible while providing more robust real-time analytics, modeling, and decision support capabilities. Also it is important to interlock with funding agencies such as World Bank, IFC as well as NGOs.

What are some of the Smarter Water Management solutions that are being offered by IBM?

IBM’s Strategic Water Management solutions include a wide spectrum of offerings to help governments, water utilities, and companies monitor and manage water more effectively. IBM has been at the forefront of innovative water management solutions for business and government. We have a unique opportunity, and unique ability, to apply our combined expertise in high performance computing, sensor networks and advanced analytics across a wide variety of water management challenges. We're modeling and simulating flash flooding scenarios, water management infrastructures, reservoir systems and more to develop new innovations for predicting, managing and sometimes even preventing events that might otherwise have a negative impact on a region's water supply. With this ability, scientists can bring together a diverse set of information incorporating weather and climate changes, flood patterns, reservoir activity and more to develop new insights and innovations for smarter water management.

Could you elaborate on some of the smarter water management projects IBM is involved in globally?

IBM is working with utility companies around the world including DC Water, the Fukuoka District Waterworks in Japan, Power and Water Corporation in Australia, the Sacramento Area Sewer District, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to modernize the management of aging water and sewer infrastructures.  And as part of our Smart City project in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, we’re analyzing data from the city’s sewage and plumbing systems to determine where water is being wasted and how access to clean drinking water can be improved.

IBM is also working with the city of San Francisco to help reduce pollution in the water that surrounds the city on three sides -- the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The city is using IBM software for smarter management of its 1,000 miles of sewer system and three treatment facilities.  In Malta, IBM is collaborating to build a nationwide system that will contain 250,000 interactive energy and water meters and thousands of sensors on both the energy grid and the water infrastructure to enable proactive management that anticipates problems, and optimizes water and energy supply together. The system will also provide Maltese citizens with better information on water and energy consumption, enabling them to make better decisions about how and when they use resources.

Do you think such water management solutions could be the potential solution for the water crisis in India as well?

Water deficits, which are already spurring heavy grain imports in numerous smaller countries, may soon force the same in larger countries, such as India and China. According to some estimates for every percent of water that becomes unusable, 200,000 jobs may be lost, which could lead to a 5.7% drop in disposable income on a per capita basis and a 5% increase in government spending. Also, a lack of usable water would have a negative impact across all industries and in all corners of the world.

Smart water management solutions, like smart water grid, can help overcome water availability as well as water quality issues – two areas critical for India.


This interview has been conducted by Roselin Dey from the India Carbon Outlook team.

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Author: Roselin Dey