A tech-driven path to our water future - Hindustan Times
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A tech-driven path to our water future

May 07, 2024 05:48 PM IST

This article is authored by Malini Balakrishnan, director, Center for Water Security & Prashanth Suresh Kumar, assistant professor, Plaksha University, Mohali.

Another World Water Day has come and gone. Another day to raise awareness about the importance of water and the need for sustainable management of water sources across the globe. However, are we any closer to solving the water crisis that many parts of the world are witnessing? Bangalore is facing severe water scarcity with the residents battling to ensure the minimum requirements. NITI Aayog predicts another 20 cities to be water-scarce by 2030. Without downplaying the magnitude and complexity of local and regional water problems, it is important to step back and introspect at a planetary level. How much water do we have on the planet? And is this water enough for us all?

Water (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Water (Shutterstock)

We have close to 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water on the planet. About 97% of this water is in the oceans, and the balance is freshwater. Of this freshwater, around 99% is stored in glaciers, snow caps, and groundwater. Only the remaining 1% is available in the form of lakes and rivers. The resulting annual freshwater availability through rainfall is about 40,000 cubic kilometres, a very small fraction of the total water on the planet.

This is way more than enough water to meet our needs. The major consumption of freshwater is primarily for agriculture (about 70%), followed by industrial (20%) and domestic usage (10%). As of 2014, the total freshwater consumption including all human activities was about 4000 cubic kilometres. Even projected water demands for 2050 are at least five times less than the annual freshwater that would be available. So why are we facing such huge water shortages?

While our planet has a vast amount of water, its uneven distribution and quality, worsened by pollution and waste, create critical shortages, which highlights that effective management of water sources is imperative. Given the complexity of the challenge, solutions must be multi-pronged involving both short and long-term solutions that address the social, economic, and environmental aspects. 

There are various areas where technology can be leveraged in the water management space. We highlight three key areas.

  • Online monitoring systems: By installing sensors for monitoring water flow, quality, and energy usage, we can gain a real-time picture of system performance. This data can enable the assessment of critical scenarios such as water losses, system breakdowns, and excessive energy consumption. This can be coupled with low-flow fixtures such as flushes and faucets. Timely intervention would help save precious water resources and the data would drive system optimisation efforts that reduce costs and environmental impact.
  • Optimal operation of existing treatment systems: India faces an enormous sewage treatment challenge given the large population and rapid urbanisation. Only around 30% of the total sewage generated is subjected to treatment. In sewage treatment, artificial intelligence (AI) models can optimise the process in terms of energy and chemicals used and ensure adequate quality of the treated wastewater. Other applications of machine learning include anomaly detection, such as equipment failures, and predictive maintenance in wastewater treatment plants. 
  • Targeting resource recovery: Sewage is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic chemicals. It is not just a combination of waste products, but a largely untapped pool of resources. This includes water that can be reused but also nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous that can be used as fertilisers. Sewage also has a high fraction of organics that can be converted into potential energy sources like biofuels. State-of-the-art technologies can help aid in treating wastewater but also can be designed for targeted recovery of such resources. 

Earth recycles the water it has and supports all its vibrant ecosystems. This can be an inspiration to create “net zero water systems” in communities that are self-sufficient with their water requirements. Technology can help us get there. We just need to ensure that we raise awareness not only during World Water Day but also advocate for and implement sustainable water management throughout the year. 

This article is authored by Malini Balakrishnan, director, Center for Water Security & Prashanth Suresh Kumar, assistant professor, Plaksha University, Mohali.

 

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