Digital water: A modern solution to the challenges of historic infrastructure

Water July 21, 2021

As the impacts of environmental change are felt across the globe, it is becoming increasingly apparent that our ageing utility infrastructure is not designed to handle such significant stresses. In the UK alone, incidences of severe flooding and extreme heat are becoming more frequent. Globally, such events are causing severe damage to communities from Canada to Germany to Japan. These extreme events put additional strain on our water networks, some of which date back to Victorian times, designed before environmental degradation triggered by global warming was apparent. Innovation in the water sector, however, is presenting dynamic solutions that will not only optimise this ageing infrastructure but could also future-proof it against modern challenges.

One exciting approach is the rapid development and expansion of ‘digital water’. Although not new to the water industry, recent investment and expansion in this technology means that it will play a leading role in the journey of transformation and innovation that is required to ensure the level of service we currently enjoy does not deteriorate over time.

What is digital water?

Digital water is the exploitation of data from a network of sensors and smart management systems installed across the water services sector to create enhanced insight and thus make better decisions. As with smart digital systems in other industries, this application to the water industry will drive an exponential increase in the amount of data generated by our water systems. The correct systems and business processes will enable rapid and decisive analysis that will in turn increase the visibility of the network, enable maintenance to be predictive rather than responsive and facilitate improved compliance. By redefining our current water and wastewater networks and integrating them into smart systems, we will be able to drive benefits not just to consumers but to the environment too and at a pace that was previously impossible to imagine.

How can digital water technology be used and what are the benefits?

The adoption of digital water technology across the UK’s water network will enable our existing infrastructure to be managed and optimised to meet the modern challenges facing the industry and ensure it is future-proof. Data monitoring and analysis technology can be applied to all areas of the sector: resource management, collection, treatment, distribution and recovery. Integrating technology and processes in this way will enable us to manage our infrastructure more efficiently and process our water resources more effectively, and most importantly, sustainably.

As we expect our population to increase significantly in the coming decades and anticipate a corresponding increase in urbanisation and city living, additional pressure will be placed on our water resources as more and more people become connected. Increased demand on finite resources means it is more vital than ever to ensure our systems are efficient. The World Bank estimates that, globally, water loss due to leaks is of the value of more than $14 billion per year. Introducing systems that are able to monitor and analyse the potential for faults will make a significant impact on reducing water losses. Leaky systems that waste an estimated 25–35% of our water resources are only going to exacerbate environmental stresses in the future. It is important that the potential for this loss is reduced and the means of managing water as a valuable resource is improved. Digital water technologies offer this potential.

What role does digital water technology play in the UK’s infrastructure?

The introduction of digital water technology to the UK’s utilities infrastructure will have a revolutionary impact on the sector. It will give water companies, engineers and technicians more data on the network and that data will facilitate the better management of demand and supplies across the country. By better understanding our assets, we can operate them more effectively. In the future, we will be able to assess the integrity of the pipes that transport water around the country and also understand the ways they are employed and how they interact with each other. Smart management services will have far-reaching effects: reducing water losses, drastically improving system efficiency, facilitating increased water conservation and providing better customer service. On top of this, the newly renovated systems will be future-proofed. They will be able to withstand future stresses, providing longevity, and most importantly in our changing world, will support the achievement of environmental targets.