Talking about Industry 4.0 and the water cycle is not a very evident combination. Before we analyse how to move forward, it is important to remember that factors like weather (potential water) and return effluent from each use (discharges) play a role in the water cycle, as well as other aspects such as different technologies to make water potable, water reuse or environmental restoration.If we draw a comparison with nature, the concept of Industry 4.0 is like an ecosystem, where the relationships and connections between different elements in the system become as important as the independent chain links in the water cycle. The digital transformation consists of moving from ‘chain links’ that work more or less in isolation to globally connected systems and elements that form an interdependent, much more efficient ecosystem. These connections will modify and determine the way we work in the water industry, combining cross-cutting products and services in the sector.
We could say that in the water cycle, great progress has been made to optimise isolated processes in order to address very specific challenges, both at the basin level (multipurpose use of regulation systems, flood prevention, environmental preservation, integrated resource management, etc.) and concerning water supply systems (drinking water treatment, energy and water efficiency in distribution networks, leakage reduction, etc.). As in every ecosystem, there are active or live components, such as users, water agencies and utility companies, water supply and distribution companies — each one with their departments and authorities — and there is the habitat where relationships take place and with which they interact, that is, the basin. Indirectly, this complex ecosystem leads to a certain resistance to technological innovation, favouring lack of coordination, negative effects of some water uses on other uses, global inefficiencies in the management of scarce water resources, high treatment costs, etc.
From our point of view, this occurs because comprehensive water cycle management, in addition to being very complex, with social and environmental factors coming into play, includes an economic factor that does not follow efficiency models. It is difficult to think about an integrated water resource management entity that only needs to increase the ROI or EBITDA, as companies do to compete, improve their positioning, their financing capacity, or the financial profit for shareholders. Of course, a water supply company or a hydropower generation company will seek financial gain, but we see that in isolation, not at the global basin level with a systemic approach to the water cycle.
Going back to the ecosystem analogy, in nature the seeds that grow into pastures or trees are dependent on plant evolution: while they interact with other living beings, such as animals, plants ensure their development and survival. In the water cycle, the information about the status of resources, available water or its quality, is a specialised sector with its own ‘evolution dynamics’ (gauging stations, telemetry centres, automated infrastructure, AMI or AMR sensors connected to modern SCADA systems, IoT applications or software platforms, etc.), as if it was an isolated niche. Nonetheless, all of this information can be used by different system users or even by other actors that produce complementary data (economic, social, etc.). The advances and inertias of the technological sector associated with data and information lead the evolution to an interconnected system. Therefore, in this comprehensive and connected vision, there is no room for cases such as those in the past where a community of users had their own monitoring network. In the same way that without synergies and interaction between plants and animals there is no evolution, there will not be evolution either if each element and actor in the water cycle continues to work in isolated niches.
At this point we introduce another parallel: the diverse ecological regions in our planet. The water cycle follows internal rules governing the relationships among its components that are different in each continent or socio-economic context. Transferring processes and methods from Europe or the United States to other countries or markets will not always be the best solution.
The approach followed in European basins years ago with large investments in monitoring and sensor networks may not be the same in Latin America, where there are already very active networks that produce information based on the users themselves through their smartphones.
What should we do then? Where should we focus our efforts? Observation continues to be an essential mechanism to generate new knowledge, and we must take advantage of new technologies such as Big Data to learn about the relationships among the different components of the water cycle ecosystem. To do this, we have to keep investing in comprehensive information, more so than just data — which we have plenty of — and in analysing that information to do validations, establish correlations, make predictions, and particularly, support decision making through applications and smart systems; and finally in managing all the information and knowledge as one more asset of great value within organisations. That is, as a sector we are in the right path for development — usually in an isolated way, by use or risk — through the information and management systems of river basin organisations, agencies or water supply companies, the numerical models used in planning or management, some predictors or early warning systems used to manage reservoirs or anticipate floods, the monitoring and operation systems of water supply networks, etc. The challenge is using all of these in an connected way, taking advantage of synergies, and in real time. Evolving towards Smart Management is an ecosystemic exercise, a task where different people, organisations, companies and interests have to interact; they are related in many ways and have points in common that can be aligned to make decisions, in order to improve and make a more efficient use of the whole basin, not just of each water canal or network in isolation.
The INCLAM group focuses its efforts in part on that need: connect data, information, users and components of the water cycle to improve water management, but also to highlight the value of investments in infrastructure, technology and studies, worth millions, that institutions often make as part of a certain programme, or that were initially made with a given objective in mind and after that are no longer useful. The accountability requirements of institutions, the interaction with the public who needs water and the water industry but also wants to preserve the environment, and the global commitments of governments under international agreements, make even more necessary to connect all components under a holistic approach, and reuse all the information in the cloud in a smart way, so it is accessible throughout the entire water cycle. Citizens have to know about the reality, the risks involved, and understand how decisions are made, which should be transparent.
The effort needed to achieve a digital transformation is worthwhile if we take into account the benefits (aside from economic benefits):
- More efficient water and energy management.
- Greater public awareness about the environment and the water cycle.
- Greater resilience to extreme events and scarcity caused by climate change.
- Increased water security.
- Increased service quality and user satisfaction.
- Knowledge transfer and improved corporate image.
- Reduced carbon footprint and process sustainability, etc.
With a strong emphasis on technology, at INCLAM group we aim for smart management based on innovation and a service delivery model focused on data analysis and management. Using tools such as Artificial Intelligence, our objective is to improve process efficiency and manage information effectively and transparently. In this regard, worth mentioning are business lines such as the WatEner smart platform, to improve energy and water efficiency during the operation and management of water supply networks using Artificial Intelligence, or SUAT, an early warning unified system based on a web platform, focused on the management of natural events with automated warnings and recommendations in real time.