What happens when our taps run dry?

Aurecon Pty Ltd

By Mike Axton* and Brian Horton^
Thursday, 09 February, 2017

What happens when our taps run dry?

Digital technology allows us to step back and ‘smart up’ around the current cycle of water consumption and wastage.

In the developed world, expectation is nothing less than a right. We open the tap and we expect clean drinking water to flow. We switch on the lights and bulbs must illuminate. We swim in waterways that must be safe and free from bacteria.

Many resources that are critical for life are taken for granted, with little regard as to how the water came to be in the tap or how the power got to the bulb. But beneath the surface, hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipes and wires, connected by a myriad of pumps and valves, make our cities habitable. Demand on these systems is rising ever higher.

Communities typically give little consideration to much of this critical infrastructure until it is no longer available. This occurred to 1.7 million residents of South Australia on the evening of 29 September 2016, when severe storms toppled power transmission towers and left their state in blackout.

The resource supply systems supplying our cities are currently pressed from numerous sides.

Many cities are facing the possibility that their infrastructure will run close to breaking point unless a shift in thinking is embraced. The confluence of urbanisation coupled with climate change, all superimposed on infrastructure that is decades old, is demanding new thinking.

Sustainable water activist website Growing Blue puts it like this: “Water is critical to future growth. But it can also become the major limiting factor to growth. For instance, businesses in water-scarce areas are already at risk, and so investors are increasingly taking water supply into consideration during their decision-making processes. Given today’s approach to water management, there is only so much growth that can be sustained. Gains in efficiency and productivity in water management and utilisation can reduce these risks and enable higher levels of sustainable growth, but how much higher? How far-reaching do those gains have to be?”

Ongoing demands for upkeep and expansion are expensive. As urbanisation increases in the coming 20 years, a relevant question is: how can governments and water authorities manage the compounding pressures on limited resources, coupled with the adverse effects of climate change?

About 40% of the world’s population currently lives in water-stressed areas. With 3 billion more people added to the planet by 2050, water scarcity will soon become a matter of life or death.

Ongoing demands for upkeep and expansion have an eye-watering price tag. Water infrastructure is a multibillion-dollar asset that if we were currently to overhaul and redo, would likely drain an entire city budget. Sydney alone will spend $2.2 billion on water infrastructure in the next four years. As the tidal wave of urbanisation increases in the coming 20 years, how can governments and water authorities manage the compounding pressures on limited resources, coupled with the adverse effects of climate change? The public purse and taxpayer pool will have to somehow satisfy the living standards and expectations to which communities have become accustomed.

Water cannot be seen as an isolated utility, but an integrated variable in the quest to solve societies’ major problems. The world of water in a decade’s time will see people expect exactly the same level of service (if not better), yet the problem will have grown in complexity. More pipelines are only a part solution. It’s a paradigm shift that’s called for: the utility authorities will need to change people’s behaviour through better digital interaction with water.

If we fail to address the social mindsets driving city planning up until now, our problems will only get worse. But if we can use the digital world to sidestep this static analog problem, we can turn crisis into opportunity. Digital technology allows us to step back and ‘smart up’ around the current cycle of water consumption and wastage. We can begin to see the grim reality of limited supply as the ‘dark room’ of innovation, whereby bold new ideas can be born to secure societal welfare in future uncertain times.


Moving from point A to point B

Up until now, we have lived in an analog-based society. Our infrastructure is essentially ‘dumb’, marked by physical variables that function independently of one another. But as digitalisation and mobile technology continue to evolve at pace, the systems and spaces we inhabit will begin to catch up. Autonomous vehicles represent 1% of the automotive market worldwide today, but autonomous vehicles will secure a 35% advantage by 2040, and that will continue to rise. Equally, the flow of water through a city’s network of steel and copper waterways will someday be analysed and controlled by smart grids. Our analog world will become digitised.

Current ‘unintelligent’ analog systems must be progressively transformed in order to change user behaviour through their enhanced interaction with the resource they are consuming. Real-time predictive analytics can draw the best out of our limited water supply by offering simple, intuitive and meaningful insight into unique infrastructure. This, in turn, can be transferred into optimal and cost-effective management strategies that keep the water cycles healthy.

Getting one step ahead

Installing predictive maintenance applications also offers a possible solution. While the demand for fresh water is increasing by 64 billion cubic metres annually, the US alone loses 7.9 trillion litres of treated water every year due to pipe breaks, leakages and mismanagement. This economic loss amounts to trillions, with a consequential impact on food prices, health and sanitation.

Connecting these assets into a real-time monitoring network would reduce the time it takes to discover and solve problems that historically appear only when a leak is physically identified. Data can be applied to motivate preventive maintenance and mitigated risk into the future. Smart meters, high-tech leak detection devices and water data software are starting to offer sophisticated and granular information on how to maximise profit, impact and environmental sustainability within water management and distribution systems.

Imagine H2O’s annual global Water Data Challenge sees promising start-ups that deliver water-focused data and analytics solutions compete for $50,000 in cash awards. The company’s VP of programming, Tom Ferguson, said, “It will be impossible to tackle the global water challenge without basic data about our water resources. These companies address some of the most pressing data problems in water, from utility process control to high-accuracy weather forecasting.”

He went on to comment about this year’s challenge: “A lack of actionable data poses significant challenges to businesses, landowners and governments managing water resources globally. Entrepreneurs responding to this problem are applying advancements in sensors, artificial intelligence, enterprise software and other IT applications to the water sector.”

The 2016 finalists provide an incredible demonstration of the power of water data to change how we manage this resource now and into the future. Here is what each is doing in this space:

  • ANDalyze, an Illinois-based company that produces water contamination testing products, uses catalytic DNA technologies to detect and quantify chemical levels.
  • APANA is developing a water efficiency solution with analytics and reporting functionality to help businesses save money by saving water, reducing compliance risk and strengthening operational sustainability.
  • Ayyeka, a start-up based in Israel, offers ‘plug and play’ water, wastewater and environmental kits for the management and cybersecure protection of infrastructure and resources.
  • Ceres Imaging, a start-up currently operating in California and Australia, is offering end-to-end capture, processing and delivery of high-resolution spectral imagery to help growers make important resource allocation decisions by demonstrating plant health without selling them hardware.
  • FarmX monitors soil, plant and environmental variables using its FarmMap Soil Probe and provides real-time analytics and precise recommendations to increase productivity and reduce costs by leveraging multiple data sources and the use of advanced machine learning processes.
  • FLUID is developing a water meter and corresponding app that helps people identify their water consumption levels, progress towards reduction goals and detect leaks.
  • Ignitia, a Swedish start-up working in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, is looking to deliver the most accurate forecasting technology for tropical weather, which can increase farm income by up to 80%.
  • Mapistry offers a comprehensive environmental compliance platform for enterprises and facilities, including a centralised dashboard, state-specific forms, automatically configured notifications and other features.
  • NJBSoft, an Arizona-based company, offers regulatory compliance software tools and needs-specific software development, customisation, integration, training and implementation services for civil and environmental engineering activities.
  • Sourcewater is building an online marketplace where energy operators, service companies and landowners can buy, sell, recycle, treat and dispose of water.

Water authorities that adopt programs of retrofitting these technologies onto their existing networks will gain the benefit of future-readying their infrastructure in the face of ever increasing demand.

Results and discussion

An incremental approach to problem solving is no longer viable within the context of our interconnected digital world. The water networks needs to be designed and planned under the bigger theme of climate change and urbanisation.

A drying climate and increasing demand from population increase will not ultimately be solved by throwing water solutions at them. If we are to ensure water’s sufficient supply into the future, we have to adopt new ways of designing, using data and adopting digitised solutions to existing networks to  manage the network intelligently. Smart cities are the only solutions to buffer the oncoming high tide of overpopulation.


Growing Blue makes a compelling point: “Given today’s accelerated pace of human development and the slow pace of managing issues as complex as water resources, tomorrow’s challenges are already at our door. Only by changing today’s approach to future water management and water productivity (economic output per drop) can we ensure a prosperous future.”

We need to harness the power of technology like never before if we want to outwit ever increasing demands.

*Mike Axton, Technical Director at Aurecon, is a chartered civil engineer and accredited project management professional (PMP) with over 25 years’ experience in infrastructure planning and delivery. His experience covers strategic and detailed planning and design of water supply and wastewater projects and programs in the UK and Australia. Mike specialises in managing complex multidisciplinary projects involving competing stakeholder needs. His technical skills in water planning and project management have been used by government, water utilities and private sector clients.

^Brian Horton, Water Leader, New South Wales at Aurecon, has over 30 years’ experience in the delivery of water and municipal infrastructure in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom. He has a passion for the development of water businesses having successfully built and led teams within the professional services arena. Brian has a strong interest in the pursuit and delivery of major water projects and programs, in particular those that involve relationship style contracting that strive for client service excellence.

Acknowledgement is given to John McGuire, Chief Innovation Officer at Aurecon, for his inputs into the thinking that went into this paper.

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