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Can Big Data Be Used To Address India's Growing Water Crisis?

For India, one of the world's most water stressed nations, the day hardly registers a blip in the overall national consciousness

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Water is indispensable, a resource of inestimable value, limited, precious and irreplaceable. On March 22 every year, the world observes Water Day, where communities and nations alike come together to make solemn pledges to save and ensure judicious use of water. For India, one of the world's most water-stressed nations, the day hardly registers a blip in the overall national consciousness. The anticipated talk by influencers, politicians, media and activists aside, the day usually goes by like any other. But perhaps not anymore. The growing scarcity of freshwater resources is shaping up to become a huge challenge for India. There was this uneasy peace between the three significant users - agriculture, industry and municipal bodies. Of these, agriculture has been the biggest user - with an almost 90% share. The balance 10-12% was split between the other two. But recent droughts have led to some muscle flexing by farmers with industry taking a hit. The recent developments in Tamil Nadu with the trade bodies agitating and boycotting multinational soft-drink companies for alleged excessive water use while farmers are reeling under drought-like conditions is a case in point. Water conflicts between states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or even Punjab and Haryana continue. These are but some examples of a burgeoning crisis expected to grow manifold.

India relies heavily on seasonal monsoon rains for water but the monsoon has its own share of ups and downs. Over 600 million people in India depend on agriculture for their living but nearly two-thirds of land under cultivation has no irrigation and so relies on rain. With poor monsoons and weak rainfall, many parts of the country regularly face acute water shortages. According to UN estimates, water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. It is predicted that large parts of India will join countries or regions having absolute water scarcity by 2025. Policy makers are largely to blame for having largely contributed to the problem and ignored the crisis, which is not about the lack of adequate water, but it's overuse and mismanagement.

Big Data for More Water
India is the largest user of groundwater in the world with groundwater abstraction at 251 cubic km per year, which is more than double that of China's. China, with a larger population, uses 28% less fresh water than India. India's overuse of groundwater also ensures that recharge is never quite enough. In fact many regions of the country are past the tipping point because water recharge to discharge ratio is adversely skewed against adequate replenishment. India's biggest cities today find it difficult to meet the minimum norm of 135 litres per capita daily (lpcd) recommended by the Union government.

But all's not doom and gloom. There is a ray of hope from an unlikely source - data! Public utility companies are finally aggregating data across the entire water cycle right from production to extraction, final use (irrigation, drinking water, sanitation or industrial use) and finally also integrated water resource management and protection. Utility companies are now bringing in sensor and monitoring systems to generate large amounts of near real?time flows of data. Intelligent water metering (IM) offers the potential to transform urban water management by enabling the determination, in real-time or near real-time, of water consumption, and provides the possibility to read consumption both locally and remotely.

Take the example of the Brazilian Federal District Water Utility, that brought more detailed business visibility and deeper data-driven intelligence to its measurement system, thereby increasing the number of effective connections while also reducing incidents of fraud. Using a database of information from all customers, including water consumption, bill control, real state records, revenues and demand on the water meter system they built the profile portfolio of customers and their detailed usage. The data insights enabled the utility to identify suspected fraud further stymied with action to save money. This led to effective hike in business income with the utility clocking a 6 percent revenue growth for the year helping it make more investments in new meters, resources, equipment, not something easily possible without data analytics.

Similarly, closer to home, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) supplying water to residents across nearly 800 square kilometres of the city uses data to address the critical issue of equitable drinking water distribution and also to effectively manage its increasingly complex water distribution systems. Making use of system data to support monitoring, administering, and managing Bangalore's water supply networks, BWSSB today assess water supply at any point in time, and makes use of real-time data analytics to ensure the sustainable and equitable distribution of water. With increased predictability, real-time monitoring and control over the water supply, BWSSB has achieved significant savings and has successfully minimised the wastage by tapping the unaccounted flow of water in the city.

Kerala is another such state making use of data analytics for better water management and distribution. Keeping a close eye on the information received from the sensors and meters installed across the state, real-time information tracking of the usage and quality of water, the utility has not only improved the state of water supply in the region but has also brought efficiency leading to lesser wastage and higher revenue collection.

As the examples above show, data is key to transforming our water future and ensuring a smart and equitable distribution amid the growing demands. Big Data can provide revolutionary insights leading new ways of achieving better water management, more adequate crisis management and even encouraging lower overall water consumption. These goals can be reached by an effective use of data that is often already in place and available but we need to take the right approach to really use it to our advantage. India's vision to develop 100 smart cities has already given a boost to the prospects of developing and enabling smart water management infrastructure across these cities. The vast amount of data about the flow, pressure and distribution of a city's water supply if leveraged thoughtfully along with advanced analytics is surely going to be a game-changer in creating a more water positive future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
world water day big data india water crisis

Sunil Jose

The author is Managing Director, Teradata India

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