A report on digital technology and the challenges faced by megacities
September 5, 2019
Megacities are growing at such a fervent pace that they are not showing any sign of slowing and are bound to leave their mark on the planet.
In 1990, these urban areas with more than 10 million inhabitants numbered 10 with an aggregate population of about 153 million, according to the latest edition of a study entitled "Water, Megacities and Global Change" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
By 2018, they had reached 33 with 529 million inhabitants. At the end of the next decade, they are expected to total 43.
The challenges they face are many, the first being their ability to provide basic goods and services to their residents, including - first and foremost – water.
Among the many initiatives that they are taking is the adoption of digital technologies. They play a decisive role in helping collect valuable data in real time and enhance the rational use of resources. Such are their effectiveness that these technologies promise to reduce the impact that economic and population growth usually have on water consumption.
So an investment in a digital future can only help guarantee the survival of the planet. This is the conclusion of "Digital Water: Industry Leaders Chart the Transformation Journey", a white paper published in June by the International Water Association and Xylem, a U.S. water technology company.
Based on interviews with more than 50 utilities executives and 20 industry experts, the document traces a map of the changes that new digital technologies are making to the supply of water in urban areas with high population density.
The emblematic starting point of the white paper is "Day Zero", the date at which Cape Town in South Africa risked running out of water in 2018 and becoming the first major city in the world to suffer the predicament. Although this day has receded for the city, others such as Sao Paulo, Shenzhen and Jakarta face serious problems with their own water supplies and the quality of the services they can provide.
So, the digitisation of the network is key to improving the management of a water infrastructure and making it more efficient and resilient.
One example of best practice cited in the white paper is the Taiwanese city of Taipei, which has a long history of drought and water crises. «(The turn to digital solutions such as) the use of sensors, smart meters, and pressure control systems has improved water conservation, providing relief to a water-stressed city», Chen Jiin-Shyang, the chief executive of Taipei Water Department, is quoted as saying. «As a result, the greater Taipei area has not experienced a water shortage in 17 years».
This is a pressing problem for many megacities, especially for those that have had higher growth rates in recent years. Only 8% of the population of Lagos, for instance, has access to drinking water, while 50% have it in Mumbai and 64% in Kinshasa, according to the UNESCO study.
However, the adoption of digital technologies by water utilities is not easy. Experts interviewed by the International Water Association and Xylem cite top management's commitment to supporting the process of digital transformation as an essential factor. In this regard, David Johnson, a manager at the Las Vegas Valley District, says: «As a public utility, getting our board to adopt (digital) goalsand make them a priority opened up the pathway for us to be able to allocatefunding toward projects». He added that barriers to the introduction of digital technology have been significantly reduced thanks to strong leadership at the board level.
A study by industry publisher Global Water Intelligence (GWI) is quoted in the report as predicting that global demand for solutions to monitor and control networks will rise to $30.1 billion in 2021.
Another factor is the involvement of the entire company. «The digital strategy has to become a corporate strategy», Biju George of DC Water, the utility of Washington, D.C., is quoted as saying. «It’s not anoption to sit there and let it happen, you have to plan for it. You have to trainyour employees towards that, you have to relook at every process. You haveto design your systems to give you a sufficient amount of data, representingthe right diversity (less correlation) you need to make efficient decisions».
The benefits of adopting new digital technologies largely offset the cost of investing in them and the difficulties of introducing them. According to GWI, the potential savings on total expenditure in the 2016-2020 period made possible by digitalisation are enormous: some $176 billion for treatment, distribution, customer management and metering of drinking water. Then there are savings of another $146 billion for the treatment of wastewater.
One of these benefits is a more resilient and sustainable infrastructure. The report calculates the annual costs of natural or man-made water disasters at $300 billion. Predicting hurricanes, floods or droughts through digitisation will create huge savings for government agencies – and citizens.
A second benefit is the change in relations between users and service providers. Many water utilities are in fact trying to encourage the introduction of digital technologies to get customers to use water in a more rational way. For example, a study by the Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) highlights how the use of smart devices in the shower saves up to five litres of water per day.
There is also artificial intelligence and technologies such as virtual reality.
Far from stealing jobs, these new applications make it possible to reduce risks thanks to simulations that lead to saving large sums in the design and maintenance of infrastructure. A PwC study called "Sizing the Prize: What’s the real value of AI for your business and how can you capitalise?" estimates the global contribution of artificial intelligence to the world economy by 2030 at $15.7 trillion.
In a scenario in which digital technologies pervade every sector, it is inevitable that they reach the world of water. However, in order for them to be effective and create a digital water ecosystem, their adoption must involve utilities, consumers, start-ups, government bodies and companies.