Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 26, 2022 Updated 20 Days ago
Can emerging technology and the fourth industrial revolution aid in the increasing water insecurity in India and globally?
The Technology, Water and Security Nexus From low-cost desalination to hand-held purifying filters, technology has revolutionised access to clean drinking water and improved livelihoods across the globe. Technology has also aided in enabling better infrastructure, reducing loss, and creating a more secure environment. As the global population grows, especially in urban centres, and resources dwindle, it has become even more important to increase the water sector’s sustainability and resilience—being water smart, creating more with what we have, and wasting less. Innovation and emerging technology in all spheres need to be factored into how we foresee water efficiency, safety, quality, and access. Working with companies and people that bring the best of innovation in technology, artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), robotics, and new frontiers in computing can enable us to better manage our growing water insecurity. However, as these two spaces merge and blur, we need to be mindful that the extent of our dependency on technology does not distract from behaviour and patterns of use. And, above all, as with many other spaces of innovation and science, we need to ensure that any over dependence on technology and systems does not become a security threat.

Technology has also aided in enabling better infrastructure, reducing loss, and creating a more secure environment.

Water insecurity is a very real challenge to human and environmental security across all measures. While access to clean water is one of the largest hurdles, insecurity also stems from a range of issues, including dwindling groundwater, stress on water bodies, unsustainable development and theft, amongst others. Changes in the climate and ecosystems are added cause and effect of water insecurity. About a third of the global population lives without access to clean water and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 set a high bar to ensure safe and affordable drinking water for all by the end of the decade. It will not be easy, especially in Asia, where approximately 300 million people in the region do not have access to safe drinking water, and close to 80 percent of wastewater generated by cities is discharged untreated into water bodies. While ambitious, these goals can be met through a better understanding of how water plays a pivotal role not only in human, food, and health security, but also in protecting ecosystems, growth ambitions, energy needs, and mitigating climate change. In practical terms, the intersection of technology and water security is an important avenue in achieving these goals. Emerging technology can be effectively utilised and optimised to make access to water and managing water systems more efficient. It also aids in smarter predictions and forecasting. There are numerous ways to harness technology, innovation, and the drive to create and aid water solutions that can ultimately also prevent conflict over shared resources.

From the Big Picture to Small Ideas

From space to smart infra, science has proven that efficiency is possible; it is how we use it that matters. The emerging fourth industrial revolution offers untapped possibilities on understanding water. In 2021, a joint satellite mission between NASA and France, the Surface Ocean Topography Mission, was launched to use radar technology to provide a global survey of Earth’s water. The satellite will study lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and the oceans, potentially adding a wealth of knowledge to previously unknown data to understand, measure, and manage our water resources. Such knowledge is not only about understanding our waters better, but it is also incredibly useful in understanding the effects of development on our resources and the more nuanced effects of changes in weather and climate, ultimately feeding into better policy making.

The satellite will study lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and the oceans, potentially adding a wealth of knowledge to previously unknown data to understand, measure, and manage our water resources.

As space tech allows us to map and gather more data and knowledge, there are numerous smaller ideas that are revolutionising the manner in which we use water and that have the potential to be scaled up. Smart metering, for example, uses IoT sensors installed at critical junctures along infrastructure to alert users on water levels, quality, theft, and leakages. Primarily used in large scale systems, these can be introduced at the household and community level, including new housing complexes that are being built in growing cities across India. Not only can such a system create better awareness and understanding in domestic use patterns to allow for better policy making, it also ensures that the citizen has a role and responsibility in the sustainability of water cycles. Such sensors can also improve water quality, as unexpected or dangerous chemical levels can be spotted and dealt with immediately. The data collected by these devices can subsequently be analysed by AI algorithms to predict seasons when there might be chemical spikes that can be pre-emptively treated, especially in communities that share water bodies and water systems with industry. Innovation in this space is countless, from water ATMs to fit-for-purpose wastewater solutions to underwater drones with sensors for pipes and drains. In Bhubaneshwar, researchers at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research are using burnt red clay to treat raw water and make it potable; and in central India, low cost fit-for-purpose wastewater solutions developed by ECOSOFTT are being used to treat pollution in the Narmada River. The interconnectedness between various users and better governance is endless.

Innovation in this space is countless, from water ATMs to fit-for-purpose wastewater solutions to underwater drones with sensors for pipes and drains.

As the dangerous trio of climate change, unsustainable development, and dwindling water resources hinder human and environmental security, the trio of science, emerging technology, and innovation need to be brought closer together in the water sector. Better public-private partnerships with substantial investment allows for targeted forecasting and tools that can predict potential conflict zones. The last annual report by the Indian Meteorological Department stated that not only was 2021 the fifth warmest year since 1901, 2012-2021 was the warmest decade on record. A rise in temperatures can have cascading effects on weather events, urban transformation, agricultural output, health, and energy security. Such events can fuel existing tensions and become risk multipliers. AI and machine learning can map and predict potential risks, and early warning tools can aid in tracking water supplies, the effects of changes in the weather patterns, and potential disruptions that can occur. It is a step forward in understanding conflict and engaging in dialogue and cooperation measures early on. A transformation in thought, analysis, and implementation is necessary to be able to counter known and, more importantly, some of the unknown risks and effects of a warming planet.

Challenges and the way forward

Undoubtedly, there are limitations and challenges to the extensive use of technology including regulatory frameworks, lack of skill, the inability of existing infrastructure to support such innovation, financial obstacles, and high energy consumption, amongst others. Often, new environmental and water-related technology and the use of AI or machines are met with suspicion and are seen as a challenge to cultural traditions, especially if local communities are not suitably sensitised. Adoption requires a wider approach, with upgraded infrastructure, a range of new technical skills, new governance frameworks, education, and effective management. These are not insurmountable challenges and can be overcome through political will, forward-looking institutions and policies, and significant public-private partnerships. There is also the added risk that comes with the use of technology, such as cyberattacks that are used as threats on critical infrastructure, utilities and businesses, affecting consumers and causing significant financial loss. ‘Hacktivism’ is a growing concern and interconnected grids, dams, treatment plants, and other infrastructure all become vulnerable. As our dependency on science and innovation grows, we need to safeguard our water from added threats that can cause mass disruption or worse.

Adoption requires a wider approach, with upgraded infrastructure, a range of new technical skills, new governance frameworks, education, and effective management.

Will emerging technology and the evolution of the fourth industrial revolution aid our growing water insecurity in India and globally? While the short answer is yes, we need to be mindful of two key aspects. Overdependence on technology cannot and should not replace human responsibility on how water is seen, understood and used; there is no substitute for education to ensure that we are no longer wasteful. The other aspect is ensuring that we use any emerging technology, innovation, and science mindfully with smart policies and global governance systems in place that provide us with security but also safeguards the water itself. While some technology has been a part of water conversation for decades, it is still a new area of collaboration. Ultimately, there is no substitute for the beautiful rivers and lakes and other water bodies we depend on.
The author is grateful to Sanya Saroha, research analyst with Kubernein Initiative for her research inputs.
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