Water management achievements & challenges in the smart city

[Versión en Castellano]

On November 14, I participated in the Smart Cities Expo & World Congress in Barcelona, ​​at the Environment plenary meeting, within the panel Challenges for a more sustainable city.

According to the session program, the topics were: Cities are major consumers of energy and natural resources. What is the step forward for city sustainability? What are the new ideas surrounding the reduction of emissions and resource consumption in cities? What is the future for waste and water management?

In summary, the key points I presented were:

  • Contrary to what the session topics state, the cities are NOT a major consumer of waterWorldwide, cities consumption is between 15% and 20% of the total water used, corresponding 70% to irrigation, and the remaining 10% -15%, to industrial consumption.
  • Now, this 15% -20% of urban water consumption is direct consumption. Besides, much of the irrigation water consumption will eventually be used to produce food for people living in cities. Then, the greater the city population, the larger the agricultural production required to feed it. But management of irrigation water is outside the scope of urban water management.
  • According to this consumption pattern, a 1% saving in urban water, is very low compared with a 1% saving in irrigation. The good news is that there is still major room for improvement in efficiency in irrigation. This improvement, in its turn, is essential to produce food enough for a fast growing population at the global level.
  • In most developed countries, the urban per capita water consumption has declined steadily in recent years. For example, in Barcelona, ​domestic consumption in 2000 was 131 liters per capita per day, while in 2011 it was only 106, very close to the 100 liters per capita per day established by the WHO as the lower limit for cities of its kind.
  • Thanks to the developed efforts in R & D, and in new models and practices, in recent years there have been significant improvements in the urban water management, for reducing both water and energy consumption and for improving the standard of living, the security of supply, the sustainability and the protection against natural disasters. Examples of these are:
    • Leakage reduction, thanks to new sensing and complex simulation modeling of networks. Currently, in most developed countries, water leakage in networks is lower than the economic optimum, and reduction continues on the basis of sustainability and social awareness criteria.
    • Supply sources recovery, previously abandoned for poor quality, thanks to improvements in both wastewater treatment and water purification processes and technologies.
    • Water regeneration and reuse, trying to use the most adequate water quality for each use, without wasting drinking water in those cases where it is not necessary for sanitary issues.
    • Urban flood prevention and protection thanks to advanced drainage systems implementation, based on meteorological information management, remote control and active hydraulic infrastructures implementation (water storage and mains).
    • Energy recovery in wastewater treatment plants (biogas), and energy production in the hydraulic systems of the urban water supply network.
    • Automatic meter reading implementation, with the possibilities it opens for a more responsible use of water and for sending real-time and personalized advice to the end-user to help him improve his own water management.
  • With regard to the future challenges, I pointed out the following issues, as the most important to my mind:
    • The availability of financial resources to allow implementation of the necessary infrastructure. Much of the problems of lack of adequate water quality have to do with a limited availability of funding, especially aggravated in recent years because of the economic-financial crisis.
    • The dichotomy long / short-term. Population growth, sustainability and climate change mitigation are all inherently long-term issues. They require planning and strategy. On the contrary, money and politics issues tend to be short term ones.  This produces imbalances that must be overcome.
    • Digital economy models incorporation to the old economy can be a shock to find new production and management models that help improve the future. Among other digital issues, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and social business can help find new innovative and disruptive solutions.
    • It is essential to count on the direct involvement of people in analyzing problems and defining solutions.

And, as a conclusion, 2 images worth more than 2.000 words…

Technology can dazzle ourselves with its bright lights and colors…

…but we must focus on real people needs

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