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Keeping the water flowing (or not) in the smart city

As populations across the globe skyrocket, demands for water and energy are expected to grow accordingly. David Christophe, Head of Marketing, Energy Segment, Nokia, looks at the new challenges facing cities when it comes to water management, and some of the latest solutions.


As populations across the globe skyrocket, demands for water and energy are expected to grow accordingly. Water is an increasingly scarce resource and in many parts of the world dramatic steps need to be taken in to ensure that city residents have access to safe drinking water, and to maintain adequate supplies for agricultural production and industrial use — and this is not a theoretical, future-looking challenge. Up until recently, projections indicated that the municipal water supply for the city of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s largest cities with more than 4 million residents, would run dry as soon as this month. Conservation measures by Cape Town residents, businesses and government have helped to stave this off at least until 2019, but the situation remains dire.


At the same time, many cities and regions rely heavily on hydro-power as a source to address current electricity demands, and are increasing its use in addressing sustainability goals. In fact, a variety of schemes are currently being explored to transport electricity to heavily populated areas of New England from Quebec, which is a major producer of hydro-power; and New England is not alone. Ensuring that this source of clean, renewable power remains stable and reliable — particularly in the face of growing climate uncertainty — remains of paramount concern. Irregular weather patterns resulting from climate change are also bringing about more frequent, and often more damaging, flooding incidents in many locales — a challenge that can be complicated by rapid urban development. Addressing this hazard is an important priority for many cities.

Managing water resources is a multi-dimensional undertaking that typically involves municipal and regional governments working in conjunction with the water and power utilities that serve them. Inevitably, each of the involved parties will need to apply greater intelligence to their operations in order to effectively address these challenges. Historically, the processes described above are fairly “dumb” — compared to the increasingly “smart” solutions from information and communications technology (ICT) networks for governmental agencies and utilities.

Smarter water

In recent years, for example, ICT platforms have emerged that can bring greater intelligence to water distribution, hydro-electric power generation and both stormwater and wastewater management systems. The management of each of these functions is increasingly dependent on data and modern communications networks. These networks are designed to transport the data and support a variety of emerging and legacy critical applications, which can help streamline operations and increase efficiency — saving money along the way.

An approach that has gained prominence in recent years is the deployment of Internet Protocol/Multi-protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) and packet microwave networks to replace older, TDM-based systems. These newer packet-based networks can be tailored specifically to the needs of utility operations, addressing stringent requirements for security, reliability and resiliency, which is particularly important for these services on which so many communities depend.

As important, these networks can support both newer, bandwidth-intensive services — such as video monitoring and surveillance of critical infrastructure — and existing operational capabilities such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA); which is certain to remain a key feature for years to come. Historically a dedicated network was required for each service, which is a costly and relatively inefficient approach. However, now this can be accomplished using a single, multi-service network and without degrading performance. For many local governments, networks of this type can be securely used to support a variety of services, from water and sewer management to public safety to everyday IT requirements.

Connected water

Another technology set to enhance water management is the Internet of Things (IoT). Utilities of all kinds are exploring the use of IoT technologies to reach farther out into their systems by deploying connected sensors that can gather information — including data from quite literal “dumb” pipes (i.e. those that just carry water). In flood-prone cities, having access to data about water levels is critical to reducing the risk of flooding. Sensors, connected to the network via Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) wireless technology, can be deployed in manholes, rainwater catch basins and more. In turn, these sensors can be monitored continually to provide real-time alarms at the first sign of rising water levels. This information can be used to identify and correct problems such as clogs in outflow pipes, and manage processes such as dam releases and other steps to direct storm and waste water flows. In the worst-case scenario, this data can also be used in early warning systems to trigger evacuations of endangered neighborhoods — helping to reduce potential loss of life.

Similar approaches can be used to help reduce water loss and waste — about 14 to 18 percent of the total water supply in an average U.S. city due to aging and leaky pipes, faulty meters and broken water mains. To help identify these sources of leakage more quickly and provide the information needed to take quick corrective action, sensors can be deployed in water supply systems. While this approach may only save a few drops at a time, when spread over an entire water distribution system the savings can be substantial; particularly in cities where drought is a frequent challenge. In some cases, this may even help to avoid the application of more draconian water restrictions.


Intelligent water management

Of course, advanced communications networks cannot substitute for the prudent renovation of deteriorating water infrastructure. What they can do, however, is help ensure that the water systems used to manage distribution, power generation and flood abatement perform as effectively as possible, providing the information needed to mitigate problems quickly, and the capacity for new applications to secure this vital resource. Increasing the intelligence of the network that supports a city’s water infrastructure would be a smart move, especially as every other area of these cities become “smarter” as well.

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