Water’s smart tech transformation for all

A celery field is watered and sprayed by irrigation equipment in the Salinas Valley, California, USA ©iStock/Pgiam

Digitalisation can help transform utilities of all sizes, say speakers in a webinar hosted by IWA’s Digital Water Programme. Erika Yarrow-Soden highlights the key topics discussed.

Under the title ‘Digital Water Horizons: Leading the Next Wave of Innovation’, this webinar, hosted by the IWA Digital Water Programme (DWP), brought together an audience of practitioners, academics and researchers, utilities, students, engineers, policymakers, and government representatives. The event also provided an opportunity to engage directly with the DWP Steering Committee as they presented current trends, challenges, and the latest developments that are shaping the future of water technology.

Rand Water, South Africa

Opening the debate, Mogan Padayachee, manager of innovation and technology at Rand Water in Johannesburg, South Africa, describes how digital technology has been adopted by the large water utility to improve resiliency and create growth. In a region that suffers from water scarcity, digitalisation has been adopted by Rand Water to enable the company to work more competitively under challenging circumstances.

The largest bulk water utility in Africa, Rand Water is one of the biggest utilities in the world, providing bulk potable water to more than 11 million people in Gauteng, parts of Mpumalanga, the Free State and North West provinces – an area that stretches more than 18,000 km2.

Rand Water operates 13 tertiary pumping stations and 60 strategically located service reservoirs and secondary booster stations, as well as its multi-billion Rand regional pipeline network. Padayachee explains that Rand Water’s water provision supplies Gauteng and surrounding provinces in South Africa, which contribute more than 40% of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), with a value chain focused on abstraction, treatment of water to drinking water standards, and large distribution networks supplying municipalities, mines, and some farms. The company, which is 120 years old, operates 3500 km of large steel distribution pipelines. This legacy of ageing infrastructure is coupled with the challenge of extensive energy use and the need to ensure energy security, along with high levels of non-revenue water (NRW).

Padayachee notes: “In Rand Water, NRW is pretty low at bulk utility level. That’s about 5-7%. But as the water enters the municipalities, this increases to 35, 45 and even 50% in some areas. We see digital transformation as having an important part to play in arresting Rand Water’s challenges. There is a plethora of technologies and solutions available. The real question is why aren’t the municipalities and utilities taking up digitalisation? Why are digital adoption rates so low in the water utility space?”

Padayachee sees leadership as critical to digital transformation. “There are many definitions of digital transformation,” he says. “Ultimately, it comes down to having a firm strategy to grow your business [organisational and technology-based capabilities] and to have the right talent, the right people, and the right processes.”

“Padayachee sees leadership as critical to digital transformation”

Analysing digital development

To assess how much Rand Water has achieved in terms of digital maturity, the water company collaborated with Isle Utilities and the Water Research Commission of South Africa on a survey to gather information across eight areas of its activities (asset management; operations and maintenance; customer service; corporate services; safety, health, environment and quality; strategy and stakeholder; capital planning and delivery; and business resilience).

“The survey involved 80 questions and was done in collaboration with other utilities across the globe,” says Padayachee. “We compared our findings with IWA’s digital adoption maturity curve, and we now have a very good understanding of where we are in terms of our digital maturity.

“We supply five billion litres of water per day, which gives you an idea of the size, scope, and complexity of our operations. At Rand Water, we have many different technology stacks. We have valuable data, but it is sitting in different silos. The question is, how do we effectively access and leverage that data?”

With a network of thousands of kilometres of pipelines running through cities, suburbs, and farms and rural areas where there is no security, Padayachee explains that vandalism can be a threat to the water company’s assets: “As you transform digitally and add more IoT [Internet of Things] devices and high-value components to your pipes, pumps and chambers, vandalism is an increasing threat and an important issue/barrier to overcome.”

Digitalisation is enabling Rand Water’s engineers, scientists, operators, and financial practitioners to make better-informed decisions, work faster and save expenditure. This includes a flagship finance project that uses robotic process automation to invoice payments and payroll. “Robotic process automation has been around for more than 20 years, but there had been quite a lot of resistance,” says Padayachee. “Once staff began to be more involved in the project and saw the improvements it made to the way they work, there has been a transformation in the culture, from staff being negative to being positive and interactive. Tasks that used to take half an hour now take a couple of minutes, improving costs and productivity and freeing employees to focus more on the end consumer.”

Creating a roadmap for development

The second speaker, Deepa Karthykeyan, partner and co-founder of Athena Infonomics in the USA, works with governments and foundations to provide advisory support on urban sanitation and finance, developing and leading multidisciplinary programmes to address the challenges of service delivery in changing urban environments. She reiterates the importance of water companies establishing a culture that embraces digital transformation, and states that there are wide disparities in system maturity and digital readiness across utilities. She also asserts that this gap will only be closed with strong leadership and a roadmap for digitalisation.

Data and digital collaboratives help bridge the utility digitalisation gap

“Digitalisation allows you to do more with less, which is particularly important in environments where resources are low,” says Karthykeyan. “The tech companies tend to focus on larger utility companies. The question is, how can we break this trend? There is power in numbers. Data and digital collaboratives are a way of delivering affordable digitalisation for utilities, particularly those operating in low resource environments.”

In California, USA, a data collaborative has been established that is a democratic, non-profit service, which shares knowledge and makes strategic investments in digitalisation, with utilities paying for their membership based on their size.

As managing California’s water resources has become more complex, high-quality data and analysis has risen in importance. The California Data Collaborative (CaDC) was founded by water managers to facilitate data-centric policy and operational decisions, to better enable utilities in the state to create a ‘sustainable water future for all’.

Such collaborations make digitalisation more equitable, lowering the cost of innovation, aggregating demand and delivery, and reviewing and providing guidance on technology.

In the closing Q&A, Padayachee agrees that digitalisation should not be the preserve of large wealthy utilities and asserts that digital technology can be used to adapt existing systems. “Not all digital solutions are expensive,” he says. “It is possible to use existing analogue systems and devices, and convert them into smart devices using IoT.”

With digital solutions to suit all scales of utility and budget, the breadth of opportunity that digitalisation can offer is astounding and potentially transformational. The webinar concludes that cultural change, leadership, and a clear roadmap will be critical if these opportunities are to be grasped and make lasting changes to the sector, benefitting communities and the environment across the globe. •

More information

To watch this and other webinars, see: iwa-network.org/iwa-learn-webinars