Artificial Intelligence, Smart Cities & Intelligent Water in MENA

Mustafa Qamaruddin
Jan 25, 2019 · 6 min read

Water is one of our most precious natural resources, yet its availability has been severely impacted by the industrial revolution and resulting climate changes. Rain and rivers, the principal sources for drinking and irrigation, have subsequently been subject to contamination. In this article, we shall examine the role of modern computer technology in tackling water challenges and cast the spotlight on creative start-ups striving to find solutions in this pressing area.

Technology holds immense promise in helping humanity to find efficient ways to manage water, treat waste, and perhaps one day even affect rainfall. Software offering insights into ways we address water challenges could empower us to make better decisions for the future of our planet.

Currently, the overlapping requirements of agriculture, food, energy, and water only compound existing problems. However, to be optimistic, we may hope that a solution to one aspect of this entangled mesh carries within it partial solutions or at least improvements to the rest. Making water readily available should affect the agricultural economics of an area, solving food scarcity. Meanwhile, the usage of water currents to generate electricity for hydroelectric dams would address energy needs.

Using the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, governments could be provided with tools to monitor the status and availability of water, issue relevant consumption bills and prevent the unnecessary waste of resources. A city that could effectively harness these mechanisms would be known as a smart city and would be amply supplied with the elixir of life and industry: water.

In developing countries, it is estimated that at least 45m³ of water is lost per day through ineffective distribution networks, illustrating the necessity of a smart monitoring solution to forestall the exhausting of water supplies.

Facilities either treating water treatment or simply using large amounts of water would benefit from water management systems, which would allow operators to monitor and track water usage, water levels in tanks, acid/alkaline balance (PH), water quality, temperature, and pressure. Water management systems would provide tools to both detect and prevent leakages. Pumps and motors are essential equipment that could be controlled, monitored and regulated using such systems.

AI Expert systems would provide both governments and facilities with advice and consultation on the optimal decisions to reduce costs and ration consumption. Moreover, the hardware infrastructure of facilities could be interconnected via trendy Zigbee compliant devices, which are the most cost-effective for IoT. These devices could send and receive operating information from a centralized automated unit. Intelligent computer systems able to make decisions based on real-time data, without the interference of humans, should result in the optimal rationed consumption of water resources.

Sensors connected over a wireless network to a cloud smart monitoring system would allow for instant leakage detection. As a low energy network protocol, Zigbee offers networking capabilities just like Bluetooth and WiFi, but at much lower operational costs. That’s why IoT devices that have to stay connected for very long periods of time could benefit from this technique, to streamline zillions of bits of real-time data from sensors to intelligent expert systems.

To elaborate a little, expert systems are AI systems that have been taught all the business rules and scientific formulas for a specific domain, such as water management and treatment. Experts and consultants teach the system their cumulative know-how, positioning expert systems to make decisions just as well as human experts with years of experience. Such decisions could vary from turning pumps on to adding chemicals for water treatment; the possibilities are endless in a world moving very fast towards the automation of every single process.

With many governments racing to build futuristic smart cities, the advent of intelligent water (a term used primarily by IBM) was inevitable. Fully fledged smart cities, depending on intelligent water amongst other smart resources for their very survival, will become ever more prevalent, giving us the chance to populate regions previously unexplored due to water scarcity.

Agriculture consuming as it does nearly 70% of our freshwater supplies, introducing intelligence to irrigation would tackle both water and food challenges. In the past, we were never too concerned about precision because we thought we had abundant supplies of water. Recognizing that this was not the case, IBM introduced smart water management software a few years ago, making use of computers for precise calculations, modeling, and simulations. Big Data, a trendy field in computer science allowing computers to interpret, analyze and learn from endless streams of information from different sources such as sensors, pumps, and motors, will transform data from smart devices to concrete opportunities.

All these ideas might sound theoretical or futuristic. You may be surprised then to hear of a real-life case study. Kenya never ceases to amaze ICT entrepreneurs, as its entrepreneurial landscape and ecosystem have evolved dramatically in recent years. In 2008, the Kenyan government proposed a smart city master plan named Konza, with the idea that it would serve as a case study and a benchmark for smart cities in Africa. The idea is that this technopolis shall host 230,000 habitats by 2030 and its construction is already in progress. This blueprint gives us a glimpse of the visionary plan being undertaken by the Kenyan government.

Supplying communities with fresh, clean water is a challenge that goes beyond digging a well and installing a pump. Countries, cities, communities, utilities, farmers, and individuals are all racing to better manage their water resources. Predictive analytics provide landowners with forecasts simple enough to be understood, interpreted and utilized by non-tech specialists. Such analytics allow farmers to anticipate droughts and floods, saving them a lot of trouble, as the absence of water is the main cause of a yearly loss of an estimated 40–60% of their livestock; even up to 80% in some remote areas.

The Kenyan government instigated an insurance program to monitor the vegetation levels necessary for livestock using digital image processing technologies on satellite images of drought-hit remote northern areas. The Kenya Livestock Insurance Program (KLIP) shall send notifications to farmers to start storing enough food for their herds, based on this analysis. The program is co-funded by the World Bank and covers 14,000 farmers, with a planned increase to 100,000 farmers by 2020. KLIP is based on a groundbreaking public-private sector partnership and now the Ethiopian government is considering investing in a parallel scheme. Such programs directly influence milk productivity and could help to fight malnutrition in Africa, so the KLIP program should bring relief to thousands of families plagued by hunger.

Innovative technology is therefore poised to make our cities smarter and more resilient to water challenges. Complemented by partnerships between public and private sector entities, there are increasing opportunities to bridge more gaps and allow young start-ups to introduce novel solutions.

Meanwhile, if you run a start-up in the MENA region, you may be interested in having a look at GESR — an incubator focused on tackling environmental challenges — as well as submitting a proposal to H2O Challenge & H2O Hackathon.


Digital Image Processing, Machine Learning, Deep Learning…