Riding the Wave of Water Innovation

Many of our parents and grandparents would probably still remember the days when they had to queue up with pails and jostle with others to get water from mobile tanks during water rationing exercises in the 1960s.

More than 50 years later, water sustainability remains a defining issue of our time. Around 2.2 billion people worldwide still lack access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organisation. By 2050, it is projected that
at least one in four people will suffer recurring water shortages.

In 2015, as part of the 2030 United Nations (UN) Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN member states adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), one of which — Goal 6: Water and Sanitation — seeks to provide affordable drinking water for all by 2030.

A recent progress report by the UN found that most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030. The agency calls for more efficient use and management of water, which are critical to addressing the growing demand for water, threats to water security and the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods resulting from climate change.

With the depletion of aquifers, together with drought-depleted surface sources and new challenges posed by global warming, the answer to achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all may lie in technology.

Many countries, including Singapore, have turned to technology and digitalisation to seek innovative water solutions, boost water management capabilities and squeeze more value from every drop of this precious resource.

As a tiny island-nation with scarce freshwater resources, Singapore has invested heavily in technology and research to boost and maintain water sustainability. Today, it is internationally renowned for its expertise in water management, seawater desalination, water reclamation and industrial wastewater treatment.

Since the last major water rationing exercise in 1963, Singapore has built a robust, diversified and sustainable water supply from four water sources known as the Four National Taps — water from catchment areas, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water. Two weather-proof sources of water made possible because of technology, NEWater and desalinated water can be used to fill our reservoirs during dry spells.

Smart solutions to tackle challenges
Moving forward, advancements in digital and infocommunications technology have offered water utilities new ways of enhancing productivity and efficiency in water management systems. Singapore, for one, is leveraging digital solutions and smart technologies to better protect existing water assets and resources, reduce loss and inefficiencies within the water loop, mitigate new threats, and conserve and reuse water.

Continued research and investment in cutting-edge water technology, and the integration of newly-emerging digital tools in the fields of robotics, sensors and network communications, system automation and virtual modelling, and predictive analysis into water resource management systems will play a big role in helping the city-state achieve water sustainability for the future.

In 2018, Singapore’s national water agency PUB unveiled the Smart PUB Roadmap, which will see artificial intelligence, big data and smart work redesign being rolled out progressively over the next five years to improve operations and meet future water needs.

Private companies in the water industry are also incorporating new technology in their operations and systems. One example is Sembcorp Industries’ Virtual Brain Water platform, which is an intelligent operations management system for process prediction and troubleshooting, allowing for centralised monitoring and control of the homegrown company’s water facilities around the world.

Data in Virtual Brain Water is stored in Sembcorp’s data lake — a highly secure repository of operational data, ensuring integrity and accountability in data collection. Through data analytics, Virtual Brain Water can rapidly process huge volumes of data such as water balance, mass balance and discharge specifications, aiding plant engineers and operators to make timely and proactive decisions to enhance plant performance.

Growing water needs
Despite rapid advances in water technology, these innovations are futile if there is not enough water to begin with.

Singapore’s demand for water is rising and projected to almost double by 2060. With the non-domestic sector making up 70 per cent of the demand then, industrial water management solutions through water-saving technology such as on-site recycling systems and water reclamation plants are also key to water sustainability and economic growth.

Even before NEWater was developed, Sembcorp was the first to produce high-quality recycled water for industries on Jurong Island in the late 1990s. By integrating water supply, wastewater treatment and water reclamation in a closed-loop model, Sembcorp’s operations on Jurong Island not only minimises liquid discharge, but also help conserve water resources. The company’s existing initiatives save over 30,000 cubic metres of water per day on Jurong Island alone.

Water demand in Singapore is currently about 430 million gallons a day, enough to fill 782 Olympic-size swimming pools, with homes consuming 45 per cent of the water.

As part of Singapore’s Smart Nation push, technology is also being used to encourage water conservation.

PUB announced in April that it would install 300,000 smart meters on residential and commercial premises by 2023. Through a mobile app or online portal, customers will have ready access to their daily water usage data and receive alerts on high usage or leaks promptly.

Since last year, PUB has started deploying smart shower devices in new homes under a demonstration project with the Housing Development Board to study the impact of smart shower devices on water consumption. Users can set water conservation goals and monitor their usage history through an app.

While tech-powered innovations have strengthened our capability to conserve and manage water on a national level, Singaporeans must each do our part as individuals — so that water rationing remains a thing of the past for generations to come.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 25, 2019.

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