How Smart Cities Will Manage Water in the Future



The Internet of Things or IOT for short has been making waves amongst consumers and various industries these past couple of years. By transforming everyday – and not so everyday objects – into digitalized components, wirelessly connected in the cloud, we can now measure and analyze every aspect of our lives.

Cities too are beginning to invest heavily in becoming ‘smart’  – that is in becoming plugged in and connected in ways that were previously unimaginable. Smart water management technology is one area that is gaining heavy traction. For many observers, this comes as no surprise given that urban areas around the world are predicted to experience high levels of water stress over the next few decades.

What is a ‘smart’ city?

A smart city is one that leverages information and communications technology such as cloud computing and real-time monitoring IOT systems in order to track data on as many aspects of municipal functionalities as possible. Singapore is an astonishing example of a smart city, and is an example of the direction towards which the rest of the world’s municipalities might be headed. The small island-city is heavily invested in tracking every aspect of life, from crowd density to the movement of every individual (locally registered) vehicle.

Smart cities attempt to record as much real-time data as possible so that they may: be better prepared to deal with any number of issues as they arise; keep track of progress and failures; make changes or pivots to solutions as needed to improve efficiency and quality of life, and to hold themselves accountable to various stakeholders. By integrating energy, public services, mobility, buildings and water management through digitization, urban areas may be able to create policies that support sustainable growth over time.

Smart cities and resource management

In order for smart cities to truly manage their resources properly, they must begin to take water conservation measures seriously and consistently. Wastewater must be properly recycled and reused in order to lessen the strain on fresh groundwater and surface water resources in both urban and rural areas. Data must also be collected and analyzed in order for municipalities to accurately predict future water consumption, and to create proper policies that will foster sustainable urban growth with democratic access to water for all.

These are far from the only aspects of water management that must be considered as cities start to become more and more water stressed. It takes a good deal of energy to clean and to transport water. As such, many urban areas need to invest in the proper technology to reduce their carbon footprint and to bring down energy costs. For instance, several regions that are currently water-stressed have considered desalination as an answer to their water woes. However, existing desalination technology not only comes with a hefty price tag, but a large environmental impact that will only further aggravate climate change and ensuing droughts. It is therefore important to look at the best solutions that are both economically and ecologically friendly for the long run.

Another important aspect to consider is aging infrastructure. In many urban areas, pipes can be close to if not over a century old. Leaky systems must be upgraded as soon as possible to prevent water waste, especially in areas that already suffer from prolonged droughts, such as California. Pipeline leak detection systems, for instance, can be put in place so that cities can immediately locate troublesome areas and deal with a leak before too much water is lost. Given that even a medium sized city can lose on average 25% of the water it produces in a day, it is critical that such waste be dealt as soon as possible for both financial and environmental reasons.

Smart solutions for today and for the future

While it might be tempting to go after quick-fix solutions, every homeowner knows that duct tape can only keep a leak at bay for so long. Similarly, on a municipal level, temporary solutions are simply useless.

Some cities like San Jose, California are already investing in long-term solutions in order to manage leaky infrastructure. Cape Town, South Africa has also reduced water usage by 30% despite a population increase by the same amount over the past 15 years. Like the notoriously water-stressed state of California, Cape Town has managed this feat by encouraging average citizens to use less water. Similarly to San Jose, they’ve also invested in leak detection systems, repaired aging infrastructure, and changed their water meter management system.

Elsewhere, countries like Australia are considering political overhauls of existing water management governance. While water management has become heavily centralized over the years, it has been suggested that local communities be given more self-management powers. A hybrid proposal seems like the most logical solution for the future, involving the decentralisation of water management practices and allowing additional service providers to participate in more local forms of water management.

Other solutions include investing in developing wetlands and watersheds that not only encourage a healthy wildlife ecosystem, but that may act as a sponge of sorts during times of heavy rainfall and flooding. Given that many urban areas are expected to suffer from more and more flooding into the future, such investments are critical in order to reduce the damage of water runoff, which gains speed and strength on non-porous areas such as large swaths of concrete. Wetlands can also be used for aesthetic purposes, and more importantly, stormwater treatment. Such uses can be seen in Toronto, Canada, where water is recycled for irrigation and plumbing purposes.

Given that water scarcity is set to affect over half the world’s population by 2050, it is no wonder that experts believe geopolitical conflicts related to this issue will become much more common in the years to come. Unfortunately, global climate change and socio-economic growth will continue to drain the world’s stressed out water resources unless existing unsustainable practices are brought to an end. As such, it is more than clear that cities around the world need to invest in sustainable, smarter resource management practices if our precious, limited freshwater sources are to serve society well into the future.