Innovation is quickly and inevitably changing the way we think and provide infrastructure services. In many sectors, technology is disrupting processes and market structures. The ability to harness solar power at home has the potential to turn consumers of electricity into providers, or “prosumers”. Solar-powered self-driving vehicles are blurring the boundaries between the energy and the transport sectors and is likely to significantly impact citizen mobility in the near future. In the water sector, however, despite the application of many of these new technologies, there are divergent views about the extent to which they have the potential to disrupt the sector.
The collection of essays in this volume exemplifies this variety of perspectives. In the first essay, Dr. Glenn Daigger (Professor of Engineering Practice, at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the University of Michigan and President and Founder of One Water Solutions, LLC) discusses the expected shift in urban water management and how emerging new challenges require rethinking the approach that was designed in the XIX and XX centuries. He foresees these large-scale and centralized water management systems giving way to more decentralized systems optimized to promote the reuse of water, including the recovery of resources and nutrients from the treatment processes. The One Water slogan encapsulates the idea of a future- proof water management approach that makes the most of water in all of its states (groundwater, rainwater, potable or used water) and serves multiple purposes adapted to local conditions.
The second essay by Dr. Upmanu Lall (Professor of Engineering at Columbia University and the Director of the Columbia Water Center) agrees that traditional and centralized Water and Wastewater systems are likely to be replaced by revolutionary decentralized networks that rely on remote sensing and digital technologies to control water quantity and quality parameters to ensure safe and affordable drinking water. Dr. Lall also discusses the challenges posed by the risks of floods and droughts, which lead to significant annual average losses globally, and are projected to increase in frequency and impact. He foresees an increase in creative financial instruments to address climate risks (e.g., index insurance, or catastrophe bonds). Lastly, he discusses how a well- developed set of principles for water resource management and regulation (even when present) cannot guarantee effective environmental management and regulation. A more integrated and coordinated action could be promoted by participatory, adaptive approaches for monitoring and investment in watershed services that address the cumulative effects of human use on water quantity and quality.
Nikolay Voutchkov, an internationally recognized desalination expert, President of Water Globe Consultants, LLC and Director of the International Desalination Association, defines “disruptive” as a solution that is at least 20% more efficient than the existing alternative. Based on this metric the author discusses a host of technological innovations and their expected impact on the sector. One key example of disruptive innovation in his view is the rapidly increasing efficiency, productivity and durability of membranes used in desalination. While considered by many a “niche solution”, the author argues that by 2030 desalination could provide approximately 25% of the municipal water supply of the urban coastal centers worldwide (currently estimated 10%). He argues further that similar technical improvements are happening in the water reuse field. Rapidly decreasing production costs are making these sustainable options, a viable alternative to cheaper, but finite conventional freshwater resources, thus enabling water stressed areas to “diversify the portfolio of water supply”.
Some promising innovative solutions discussed in this essay (and relative enabling conditions) are in the fields of Digital water, Water reuse, Resource recovery, and Desalination.
In the fourth essay, Will Sarni (Founder and CEO at Water Foundry, as well as a Former Deloitte Consulting Director) offers a deep dive into how digital technologies are progressively transforming the water sector by enabling real time water quantity and quality monitoring.
Taking a closer look at the ongoing digitization of the water sector, the author explores its potential to strengthen the watershed—assets—consumers value chain. For upstream surface and groundwater monitoring, satellite imagery is already extensively used, as well as for flood forecasting. Moving along the value chain, the author points out that the most forward-looking water suppliers have already started to use Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) systems to gather, process and analyze real-time data on pressure, flow, and water quality. Thanks to the insights from these data, incidents like corroded pipes, leaks or even contaminations can now be remotely predicted and addressed with significant improvements in efficiency. What is more, the author states that exploiting “digital twins” (providing a complete virtual model mirroring physical assets) is opening up new possibilities also for simulating modifications to the water systems before they are implemented in reality. With software like Dropcounte and WaterSmart, digitization can also become the tool to engage the end consumers in sustainable behaviors making them aware of individual water consumption patterns.
A clear, albeit somewhat counterintuitive, insight agreed upon by the experts is that technology, by itself, cannot bring radical change (let alone “disrupt” a pre-existing market solution). While, technology-wise, the water sector seems ready to shift towards a more responsible, sustainable and transparent “One Water” approach to water management, the essays raise critical questions about two important elements in this process.
The first is regulation. What are the necessary conditions for technological innovation to be widely adopted? Will the emerging technological advances push for the needed regulatory reforms, or is regulation reform a pre-requisite for the sector to seize the opportunities presented by innovation? Some familiar Silicon Valley stories (e.g. Uber or Airbnb) exemplify disruptive innovation happening prior to regulatory reform. As consistently pointed out in the papers, however, regulation plays a much more prominent role in a sector traditionally managed as a natural monopoly, and constrained by the recognition of water as a human right.
The second element is one of scale. What would be the optimal level at which to promote and adopt such changes? Many of the innovations aligned with the concept of One Water are local and can be applied at a smaller and decentralized scale. Most of the best practices showcased are found at the city level: Singapore’s Public Utility Board (PUB) operates as a holistic smart water grid, while China aims to turn 16 flood- prone urban areas into “sponge cities” absorbing and reusing at least 70% of rainwater by 2020. In a generally water- rich region like Latin America and the Caribbean, certain cities especially hit by weather and water-related issues might have a stronger incentive to re-think their water management systems. Of course, whether municipal agencies have enough financial resources (or political will) to embark on the necessary retrofits and innovations remains a challenge.
We hope this collection of essays will provide some food for thought and inspire continuous dialogue on these critical questions.