IoT helps ensure access to clean water

Sheila Zabeu -

April 20, 2022

Lack of access to sources of drinking water is one of the greatest problems facing humanity today. About 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and 2.7 billion suffer from water scarcity for at least one month a year, according to WorldWildLife (WWF). And, given the current rate of consumption, the situation is likely to get worse – by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could face water scarcity with ecosystems suffering even more.

In many regions, communities currently rely on systems that use hand pumps for water for drinking, cooking and bathing. In many cases, there is only one such pump in the area, increasing the chances of problems in operation, maintenance or efficiency. When these pumps break down, they leave an entire village without water until a qualified technician can come and fix it, which can take days or weeks.

Thinking of improving the quality of life of these populations, the non-profit charity: water developed with the support of Cisco an extendable solution that remotely monitors water consumption and the condition of hand pumps in real time using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. “We started researching academic patents in 2012, but could only find proofs of basic concepts with no potential to use the technology on a large scale. There were no sensors for rural hand pumps,” explains Christoph Gorder, director of charity: water.

That’s when the team decided to design their own IoT sensor from scratch to collect data and send it to the cloud. After years of learning and with the support of Cisco’s Global Impact Grant program, they were able to launch India Mark II sensors that can operate in remote environments with few resources. They can be installed without specialised manpower or equipment. They have geolocation features so they can be easily viewed on maps and thus facilitate the dispatch of maintenance professionals if necessary.

The India Mark II sensors can detect volumes such as water flow and volume and take up to 13 million readings per day, according to Cisco. The data is compressed and transmitted to the cloud (for just a few cents a week), where it is processed using advanced analytics tools. Custom information can be viewed through dashboards to better understand water consumption patterns and quickly detect supply failures. In addition, this same data can generate valuable reports to present to stakeholders and donors to charity:water.

Having overcome the challenges of deployment at scale in rugged areas, India Mark II sensors can be a very useful tool in providing reliable drinking water to vulnerable people around the world. Proof of this is that in late 2021, charity:water shipped over 390 India Mark II sensors to Uganda. The first units were distributed to the remote area of Karamoja in northeast Uganda. Within three days, local teams installed the sensors in the community’s water systems and have since been transmitting data in real time, generating interesting insights. There was a significant increase in water consumption in one location on New Year’s Eve, for example.

“In the world of data, you start with a fairly simple concept of what you want and then you realize it is a treasure trove. This dataset is already the largest in the history of rural water use in the developing world. We will learn a lot more about consumption rates and which water points are overloaded and which are underutilised,” explains Gorder.

The charity: water predicts that with the data set gathered by the sensors, it will be possible to explore numerous possibilities, such as training algorithms to predict failures of hand pumps so that maintenance teams can proactively solve problems, saving time and money and, most importantly, ensuring access to clean water.

IoT and rational use of water

The Internet of Things (IoT) has enormous potential to reduce water scarcity and thus ensure access more equitably. Intelligent water monitoring and management systems based on IoT sensors can give water and sanitation utility operators effective means and real-time data to measure, monitor and control water distribution networks and the quality of distributed water and thus contribute to preserving this valuable natural resource.

Below are the main areas of contribution of IoT solutions to rational water consumption:

1. Reduction of waste arising from leaks in the distribution lines;

2. Monitoring water quality to help preserve sources and prevent diseases among consumers;

3. Improve the efficiency of water systems, for example by controlling pressure levels, flow, temperature, among other parameters, and also by carrying out proactive maintenance to avoid interruptions in the water supply;

4. Raise awareness about the rational use of water by using smart meters that ensure greater visibility and transparency of consumption in real time.

The Auto Meter Reading (AMR) segment, which facilitates automatic meter reading without physical inspection, is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of 4.9%, reaching a market value of US$ 2.3 billion by 2026. The Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) segment, which includes two-way communication solutions between metering devices and users or utilities and covers functions such as meter readings, fault or leak identification, service connection/disconnection, and theft or tamper detection, will see a compound annual growth rate of 10.6% over the next seven years. The segment is gaining momentum with technological advancements, cost benefits and new evolving utility needs.

The major demand drivers in the global smart water meter market are water scarcity, conservation measures, aging infrastructure, rapid pace of urbanization, leakages, stringent government regulations, and operational improvement actions.