This article is part of our special report Can space technologies improve drinking water quality?.
Digital tools, which provide water utility operators with accurate and timely information, can improve drinking water quality and ensure better water safety planning, experts say.
The quality of drinking water currently faces two main challenges: algae blooms and turbidity.
Algae blooms can be caused by eutrophication – water pollution caused by excessive plant nutrients from agricultural practices. It can also deteriorate during drought conditions and with rising temperatures.
Turbidity can result from normal weather phenomena but has increased in time due to extreme events related to climate change, such as floods.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for drinking water quality, water safety plans (WSPs) are recommended as the most effective means of consistently ensuring the safety and acceptability of a drinking-water supply.
“WSPs require a risk assessment including all steps in water supply from catchment to consumer, followed by implementation and monitoring of risk management control measures, with a focus on high priority risks,” the WHO notes.
The WHO says that where risks cannot be immediately addressed, the WSP approach allows for improvements to be implemented systematically over time.
“WSPs should be implemented within a public health context, responding to clear health-based targets and quality-checked through independent surveillance,” the WHO says.
The risk assessment module suggested by the WHO uses open data for watershed management and provides information for the control of nutrients, erosion and sediment.
It can also identify other pressures such as from industry, changing land use, and climatic risks such as floods and droughts.
Experts suggest that if water managers are quickly informed about potential algae blooms or turbidity, they can take the necessary preventive actions accordingly in order to ensure water quality.
The debate over the digitisation of water utilities has emerged as a way for the industry to adopt preventive planning and avoid excessive costs.
“Water professionals are often considered, rightly, to be conservative, cautious or late adopters. Yet several potent trends make digital water no longer optional, but rather inevitable,” said Kala Vairavamoorthy, executive director of the International Water Association (IWA).
“Water professionals must update our analytic strategies used for planning investments, with constant, real-time observations of water quantity and quality data,” he added.
He said that digital water would help connect the water sector with related industries and resource issues, such as energy, health and agricultural production and ecosystems.
“Connected utility assets help unlock the seamless integration of information and operational technology (IT/OT), creating ‘silent running’ systems, innovations that improve water extraction through smart pumps, or treatment through real-time performance monitoring […] Real impact in engagement and efficiency will come through the interaction of big data, clear analytics, smart devices and user-friendly applications,” he noted.
The role of Space-O
For the IWA, in order for a risk-based approach for water management to be possible, water managers and utility operators need to have sufficient and timely information.
“Space-O provides this using a catchment-based approach, which enables utility operators to act timely (with information up to 10 days ahead), that is accurate and comprehensive as it provides an overview and typology of risk within the catchment area, connecting service provision with other water uses like agriculture,” IWA told EURACTIV.com by email.
The SPACE-O project, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, focuses on better management of drinking water.
Through satellite imagery from Copernicus and advanced models, the researchers have created a water information system, which produces precise and short-term forecasting (for up to 10 days) about water quality and quantity in lakes and reservoirs.
According to the IWA, the water treatment plant (WTP) optimisation system uses modelled (forecasting) data to increase managers’ preparedness as well as to inform customers.
“Short-term forecasting to identify stressors on water quality like algae or turbidity in advance can save resources,” the IWA noted, adding that this optimises performance by reducing costs of chemical and energy consumption.