Striving for the best, preparing for the worst

The digitalization of water infrastructure of well underway and promises to bring both the water sector and its customers a range of benefits. More transparency towards and interaction with customers through apps; reduced water loss due to effective detection of failures and leaks and also the prevention of leaks through predictive maintenance; and better planning of infrastructure and abstraction, etc. are within reach. This entails the introduction of myriad sensors, communication channels, data lakes and the like and their interweaving with all processes in water supply companies  (see the IWA report). The scale and complexity of this development have led to a flourishing field of research, to which our institute also contributes.

There is a flipside to this increasing complexity of our water supply systems. It makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks, but also to failure of other infrastructure (power, data) through cascading effects. This, and the prevention of these situations, has become a field of study in itself (see e.g. link) and the design of infrastructure that is robust and/or resilient (discussions on their exact definitions are beyond the scope of this piece) with respect to all kinds of disruptions.

We all know how water is a basic need for all life and that, in the developed world, we use 100-200+ liters of drinking water per person per day directly and much more as embedded water in the products and services we use. Our dependency on the functioning of the water infrastructure is almost unimaginably extensive. It is therefore vital to make our infrastructure robust and/or resilient, as just described, but the question is whether we “only” need to make it so with respect to short term disruptions and stresses.

As the world continues to struggle with the Covid pandemic, most of us are quite aware of the larger climate crisis looming over us. The world is starting to define and implement policies that aim to steer us away from extremely dangerous mean global temperature rises above 2 degrees Celsius. It is not a given that we will succeed in doing so and en route we may reach natural tipping points or critical thresholds that will push us beyond this limit despite all our efforts. This has some scientists worried of possible societal collapse (‘Collapse of Civilisation is the Most Likely Outcome’: Top Climate Scientists, New book – ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’) sometime in the 21st century. Of course, the timing, scale and degree of such a potential collapse are uncertain themselves. I am not in a position to say anything sensible about the likelihood of this happening (but deeply worried nevertheless). However, it seems prudent to acknowledge the possibility and consider the possible consequences.

So what does this mean for the design of our (smart) water infrastructure? What would a partial societal collapse look like? Is it already underway in some parts of the world? We can imagine that it would entail conflict, large scale migrations, the breakdown of organizational structures (national governments, large companies, etc.) and the systems and infrastructures that they operate and maintain (power, communications) over long periods of time. It could mean great shifts in demand; uncertain availability of employees to operate water infrastructure; of power and of means of communication; and of materials to maintain the infrastructure. It would likely render a smart water infrastructure incapacitated to a significant degree.

Even though this scenario may currently seem unlikely (link), the consequences would be of such magnitude that it should not be disregarded. Therefore, there is a need for including fallback options in our smart water infrastructure. Perhaps we need to design them in such a way that they include all the bells and whistles that digital water has to offer, to reap their benefits under nominal conditions, but that they can also easily be decoupled/subdivided into small subsystems that can operate independently with very limited resources (single operator, locally produced power). This is more easily done for sparsely populated areas that for regions with high population density for sure, and also requires additional thought on the sourcing of water under such extreme conditions.

We are striving for the best with digital water, we are trying to save what we can with respect to human induced climate change (well, actually our efforts could and should be increased), but it would be prudent to prepare for the worst for our basic needs.