#WorldWaterDay: How ICTs are creating smart water and sanitation systems

Out of the global population of some 7.5 billion people, 2.4 billion currently lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, 1.8 billion people use a contaminated source of drinking water and by 2030 the global demand for water is expected to grow by 50%.

As the magnitude of the global water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) situation is expanding, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are revolutionizing the management of water resources and may be instrumental in the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for clean water and sanitation (SDG 6).

How can ICTs help to sustainably manage water and sanitation?

ICTs and smart water management (SWM) systems are being applied to a variety of development projects for water management and sanitation.

For example, satellite remote sensing of groundwater in Somalia allows researchers to accurately gauge water quality. In Kenya, real-time monitoring of communities reveals their sanitation status. And in South Africa, online data collection allows community-based NGOs to forecast the level of rivers and to identify new sources of fresh water. Additionally, smart water meters can provide individuals, businesses and governments with information about their own water use.

“ICTs are helping on all sides, the providers as well as the consumers. For example, by better monitoring and managing water losses and by giving consumers better ways of reporting water quality or quantity problems,” says Carolien van der Voorden, Senior Programme Officer, Learning and Documentation, Global Sanitation Fund, Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). “For example, small service providers and customers in urban informal settlements using apps and their mobile phones to alert when pit-emptying services are required.”

The WSSCC is a global alliance of members and partner organizations from 150 countries that work together to address global water and sanitation issues. “WSSCC, and in particular the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF), addresses sanitation for the very poorest, often in rural areas. Our use of ICT at the moment is mostly limited to monitoring, with countries also developing their own online progress tracking systems” van der Voorden told ITU News.

For example, the Ministry of Health in Kenya has implemented a Real Time Monitoring System for Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an online monitoring and evaluation system to track sanitation levels and progress toward their Open Defecation Free Mission. The Somalia Water and Land Information Management (SWALIM) project developed by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also developed sophisticated systems for monitoring surface and groundwater to support sustainable development of the scarce and valuable water resources in the country.

Advanced monitoring allows for better planning and management, especially during cycles of drought and flooding.

Smarter treatment of wastewater

As water is an increasingly scarce resource, efforts to limit, recycle and treat waste water will be key to sustainable management. For the theme of World Water Day 2017 the UN is asking: Why Wastewater?

According to ITU’s report, ICT as an Enabler for Smart Water Management, a number of factors are impacting the delivery of already scarce fresh water to millions of people. “Economic growth, changing climatic conditions, rising population and urbanization are all affecting availability of water resources. Moreover, a number of effects linked to climate change, such as lengthy droughts and extreme weather events, are worsening the situation.”

Despite current efforts for water recycling or treatment, it is estimated that over 80% of the wastewater generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused. ICTs could prove to be effective in the treatment and recycling of wastewater and key to tackling the world’s water scarcity crisis.

ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities has identified key trends in urban smart water management, including ICTs for managing wastewater. For example, in Holon municipality in Israel, the sewage system was plagued with problems such as frequent blockages and overflows. By installing gauging devices equipped with sensors, the municipality was better able to manage its sewer systems and now receives reliable information to monitor its sewer system using a web platform, and sends alerts via short message service (SMS) messages when the level reaches low/high limits.

The Netherlands is leading solutions for wastewater treatment through large-scale private-public investments. The Dutch water management authorities recognize the need to draw together economists, engineers and climate scientists to work together to solve the issue. The Dutch government has promoted effective collaboration among stakeholders though a coordinated Delta Programme, to effectively manage freshwater supplies in the country.

While countries and municipalities are leading investments and projects to sustainably manage water resources, it cannot be overstated the importance limiting, reusing and recycling water usage at the individual level. With new technologies like smart water meters and apps to monitor home usage, ICTs are enabling individuals to better manage their own water use.

Note:  ITU’s Focus Group on Smart Sustainable Cities is now part of United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities, which will be taking part in discussions for Green Standards Week, April 3-5. 

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