5 ways the Fourth Industrial Revolution could end water insecurity

With blockchain-enabled water management, shortages should be a thing of the past. Image: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

Callie Stinson, Project Lead, Water Initiative, World Economic Forum


The global water and sanitation crisis is not a new story. Each World Water Day we review the sobering statistics with which we are becoming all too familiar: the expected 40% gap in global water supply and demand by 2050. The billions of additional dollars still needed to finance water infrastructure. The 4.5 billion people who lack access to safely managed sanitation services. The fact that water crises have ranked among the top global risks in terms of potential impact seven years in a row.

What these sorts of statistics remind us is that status quo approaches are not going to be enough to solve the world’s water and sanitation problems. Innovating in this domain is no longer an option but a necessity. Harnessing the rapid advancements in technology and information represented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) holds great promise for improving the way we manage global commons challenges, including water. But how do we turn this promise into reality?

The World Economic Forum’s Global Water Initiative, in collaboration with the World Bank Water Global Practice and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, has embarked on a journey over the past year to explore this very question. By convening water policy experts, entrepreneurs and technology innovators in a series of workshops and meetings, we gained valuable insight into several areas that are ripe for disruption in the water sector. Encouragingly, we also discovered many of the solutions we need are already at our fingertips. Here are five examples how the 4IR could help make water insecurity a thing of the past:

Blockchain for improved water resource management

By providing a secure, transparent and distributed ledger to record transactions between parties, blockchain-based technology could fundamentally transform the way water resources are managed and traded. First and foremost, harnessing this capability could enable everyone from households, industry consumers, water managers and policymakers to access the same data on water quality and quantity and make more informed decisions. Such transparency would help inform consumer decisions around when to conserve or use water. It could in turn help prevent corrupt behaviour in situations where there may be an incentive for local authorities to tamper with or withhold water quality data.

Blockchain technology could also support peer-to-peer trading of water rights in a given basin, empowering water users who have enough or are willing to share their excess resources with others in the area to do so 24/7 without relying on a centralized authority. Imagine a scenario where farmers in the same water basin could make the decision to trade their allocations based on the latest weather data, crop prices, market trends and longer term climate trends — much of which is already accessible via their mobile devices.

This type of transparent, real-time approach to water management could greatly mitigate tensions within and across certain localities by democratizing access to information and preventing the tampering of data. Power Ledger is among the companies pioneering blockchain applications for the water sector, as is evidenced by its current work with the city of Freemantle in Australia to create a blockchain-backed trading system that leverages smart water metering data.


Rohingya children in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, 2017. Image: Reuters/Hannah McKay

Decentralized water reuse systems

By 2050, 7.3 billion people — or nearly 70% of the world’s population — will reside in cities. More than 90% of this urban growth is projected to occur in emerging markets, where large-scale, centralized water infrastructure may not be feasible or advisable, whether due to finance constraints, governance challenges or climate variability.

Decentralized solutions can play a critical role in these settings to complement traditional approaches and expand access to safe water and sanitation services. As pointed out by Scott Bryan, President of the San Francisco-based NGO Imagine H20, “water reuse, partly driven by the falling cost and improved efficiency of membrane bioreactor technology (MBR) over the past 10 years, can become common practice in a city’s built environment and industrial zones”.

Innovative finance solutions and business models that leverage 4IR technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will prove essential in bringing these decentralized solutions to scale, thereby ensuring better health and resilience of our cities.

Basin-level insights to manage water risk

Situations like the one currently facing South Africa’s Cape Town — which appears to have just narrowly avoided a “Day Zero” scenario in which its taps would be shut off following debilitating drought and prolonged depletion of its water store — reflect a stark reality: water basins throughout the world are facing increasing stress due to climate variability, population growth, industrial use and other drivers of water insecurity.

However, our ability today to track and mitigate water-related risks has never been greater. WWF, Conservation International, Dow, the Earth Genome and others have initiated promising approaches to monitor watershed health, for example. Satellite imagery and other forms of earth observation, combined with remote sensing, IoT, AI and other advanced technologies could enable us to detect water basin risks earlier.

More importantly, these tools can enable us to quantify that risk, and then identify and implement solutions to manage it accordingly. Imagine the implications if we were able to not only predict the next 10 Cape Towns, but identify specific investment decisions that could prevent such catastrophic risk from becoming reality. Actors like Microsoft, Orbital Insight, the Earth Genome and IBM are already leveraging some of these capabilities within and outside of the water sector, offering valuable examples of what might be possible.

Teenagers jump into the polluted water of Manila Bay, Philippines. Image: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Advanced materials for producing new sources of water

In a world where only .05% of the earth’s water is readily available for human consumption, increased demands need to be met with new sources of supply. Improvements in advanced materials will be an important part of any solution set addressing water shortages.

New forms of graphene-based membranes could revolutionize the desalination market, which has grown steadily over the past several years. Other material advancements are enabling scientists to harvest water from air more easily, without relying on humidity, a development that could prove transformational in arid, water scarce regions.

Water- and sanitation-smart cities

The combination of IoT, AI and other advanced technologies can and will positively disrupt the provision and maintenance of water and sanitation services in cities. Whether retrofitting cities to become more resilient or designing basic service delivery systems to meet the needs of expanding urban areas, these technologies are generating new insights as well as economic opportunities.

For example, the Toilet Board Coalition is pioneering exciting work around “the digitization of sanitation” in places such as Pune, India. Efforts to integrate sensors and wifi into toilet networks in such areas can generate valuable data and information on public health and consumer behaviour, as well the quality of maintenance systems and need to optimize routes for waste collection and transport.

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These are just some examples of how the 4IR is unlocking a whole new suite of solutions that can help us accelerate progress against UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all”. The opportunity before us today is to connect and scale these pockets of innovation.

This will not happen automatically. In addition to refining the technologies, it will also be important to establish the right governance frameworks and policies, societal engagement and acceptance, and investment landscapes and financing models. New forms of public-private collaboration and innovations in business models will be at the core of this challenge.

No single technology will solve the world’s water and sanitation problems, but on World Water Day 2018 we certainly have something to celebrate: the solutions we need are within our grasp.