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January 27, 2022

How businesses can address the water scarcity crisis

In addition to meeting net zero goals, organizations also need to lower their water footprint to reduce disruption risk and ensure accessible clean water for all.

Companies worldwide have begun adapting their operations to reach their net zero goals. Although these measures to minimize their carbon footprint are vital, so too are the environmental issues of water scarcity and poor water management.

Growing water scarcity — defined as individuals having less than 1,000 cubic meters of clean water available per year — poses disruption risk to businesses and their supply chains. Already, the lack of accessible clean water is affecting the viability of industrial operations and increasing taxation as nations struggle to ensure the protection of drinking water for the population. The UK says clean water volumes will fall 50% to 80% by 2050, while Germany’s elevated water taxes are affecting the economic viability of agriculture operations in the region. 

We have confidence that the Global Water Observation System, proposed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), will serve as a valuable tool for evaluating the current water crisis and help companies plan for scarcity scenarios. But there’s no need to wait — companies have many tools and resources at their disposal to take immediate action across multiple points of their operation. 

Measuring and managing water usage

To reduce their water footprint — which measures both the volume of clean water consumed and wastewater generated — businesses need to improve their approach to water management. With the cost of water management improvements equating to only one-fifth of the total costs associated with water scarcity, according to the CDP’s 2020 Global Water Report, we urge businesses to make these investments, and digital solutions can play a significant role in this endeavor.

In our experience, here are the major opportunities for businesses to improve water management, as well as the technologies and systems we advise them to use in these efforts: 

  1. Reducing overconsumption. A key reason for poor tracking and management of water usage is that water resources have historically been undervalued. But by deploying modern technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and remote sensing to precisely measure water consumption throughout the supply chain, industries and agriculture facilities can elevate this metric to a KPI as relevant as greenhouse gas emissions.  

    An example is in the agriculture sector, which has used remote sensing and satellite monitoring to help farmers better plan irrigation procedures to leverage weather conditions (e.g., precipitation, humidity and local temperatures) and local topography by providing them with detailed real-time monitoring of their farmed areas. The insights gleaned can result in automatic adjustment of irrigation routines to align daily fluctuations in water availability with the water needs of the crop.

    Supported by these digital solutions, companies can also estimate their current and future operational risk based on climate forecasting, population growth, increased water demand and natural disasters. Using simulation scenarios, they can identify areas of higher risk and higher return on investment when assessing water management options and improvements.

  2. Avoiding clean water waste and leakages. A big reason why many companies don’t control clean water waste and leakage is that their operational runoffs aren’t considered a source of pollution, as water waste is not regulated in most countries. But we believe this will change as clean water availability declines, as it will become directly correlated with ensuring operational safety. This is especially true in industries that are highly dependent on large volumes of clean water for their production processes.

    One scenario is that companies will need to adapt their production lines using technologies that increase costs or lower the quality of the products being produced. More concerning, clean water scarcity will undoubtedly lead to an increase in resource costs, which directly impacts the cost of operation.

    Instead, however, they can deploy predictive leakage detectors, sensors and AI-assisted decision-making processes to locate, measure and address water leakages in agriculture, industrial facilities and households. In fact, the need to identify and mitigate household water leakages has become a focal point of England’s Environment Agency, which cites these as resulting in three billion liters of clean water being wasted per day.

    By installing leakage detectors in households, boreholes and water distribution lines, organizations can receive a periodic reading of the integrity conditions of piping and connections. Using sonar or radar waves, the equipment can identify wavelength fluctuations that indicate the presence of a crack. Leakage detectors can also identify the presence of a continuous flow of water in the pipelines, which might also indicate a leakage in system such as toilets and showers.

    Companies can also invest in machine-learning technologies that help predict pipe bursts, pressure changes in distribution lines, sewage clogging and storm overflows. By improving the quality of predictive maintenance, such solutions can reduce losses associated with accidents, spills and pipe bursts.

  3. Preventing contamination of natural resources. Because of poorly enforced laws regulating the quality of wastewater discharged into natural bodies of water, there’s often a higher incidence of low-standard industrial, agricultural and sewage discharge. As the natural availability of water declines, it will become even more important to preserve high-quality water basins.

    We advise the use of digital twins to simulate scenarios that reveal the impact of various treatment parameters on wastewater quality throughout the operation. Using integrated asset management systems, businesses can further ensure effective water treatment operations using continuous data visualization and interpretation. These systems can interpret the data obtained from multiple sensors, pumps and detectors in the treatment plant and, through predictive and prescriptive analysis, promote continuous improvement.

    By doing so, these plants can become more energy efficient, consume fewer chemicals, decrease downtime due to unplanned maintenance or system failures, and ensure the continuity of their operations and quality of their treated wastewater. 

    Businesses can also combine multiple digital solutions that enable smart pumping, pH sensors, chemical and oxygen detectors, weather forecasting, catchment monitoring and methane detectors to ensure continuous improvement in the quality of wastewater discharged. By consolidating this information in a single system, companies can also keep a close eye on the global parameters of the plant.

    Finally, the decision-making software ensures continuous control of the treatment plant and reduces the risk of human error in operational control and management. 

Reducing the water footprint

The tools and systems to improve water management are here today. Companies can deploy these technologies to understand their water footprint across the value chain, from better measurement, to better management and outcomes.

To avoid a tipping point, companies should modernize their operations with the same speed by which they’re actively pursuing their net zero goals, embracing the importance and fragility of our global resources. 

Dr. Lila Pupo

Sustainability Advisor

Picture of DIgitally Cognizant author Lila Pupo

Dr. Lila Pupo is a Sustainability Advisor at Cognizant focused on AI-supported digital solutions to enhance Catchment Management, Renewable Energy Adoption, Wastewater Treatment and Geo-based Risk and Opportunity Analysis for various industries.

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