Everyone is talking about digitalisation, and with good reason: digital change is reaching into almost every moment of human life. While the technologies have been arriving decade by decade, the world has never seen anything like the wave of the last few years. In 2018, more than 18 billion devices were connected to the internet, and the number is projected to hit nearly 30 billion by 2023 – which will be more than three devices per person on the planet. Half of these will not be accessed by people at all, but will only talk to other devices.

This is digitalisation: it doesn’t just mean living with digital devices, but living in a digitally determined world. People direct their life stories on social media, order their clothes and meals online, exchange projects with work colleagues on a global scale, and – especially in the locked-down world of 2020 – meet their friends and family over high-definition video streams.

Digitalisation is also changing the way people consume water. Many are switching to smart meters that provide real time data and enable households to make informed decisions on their water consumption. Positive benefits also extend to water utilities; for example, smart meters can detect leakages and reduce the labour costs associated with more traditional metering systems. Smart meters are one example in a range of technological innovations that are now transforming how water utilities operate – from machine learning that helps to predict water shortages and track flood patterns to robotics that improve the effectiveness and safety of tasks prone to human error.

Digitalisation impacts heavily on the environment, however, as billions of short-lived, electrically powered devices communicate with one another and with high-performance cloud services running on perpetually humming server farms. The whirlwind pace of digital expansion has raised fears that it could all be a high-tech emissions engine. Estimates suggest that information and communication technology is responsible for 3.6% of global electricity usage and contributes 1.4% of global emissions.

In other words, digitalisation is not innocent when it comes to the other whirlwind change of the present day: global climate change. To be part of a sustainable, liveable future, digitalisation has to decisively support positive outcomes for the climate and environment. Fortunately, there are many ways in which it can, not least in the water and wastewater sector.

WaCCliM’s Digital Toolbox

WaCCliM is a digitally native project: we connect municipalities and water and wastewater utilities in online exchanges, provide digital tools like ECAM to assess greenhouse gas emissions and prioritise climate mitigation measures, and disseminate effective approaches through our digital knowledge platform, Climate Smart Water. And this is only the beginning of our work to promote digitalisation in the service of mitigation. We have identified a number of digital solutions in our pilot countries that can directly lead to more efficient operation, letting utilities save and recover energy and resources.

In Madaba, Jordan, our partner utility installed energy-efficient pumps with variable frequency drives in April 2019. More than just efficient, these pumps are an important step towards digitalisation in the urban water system. With access to so much powerful operating data, the utility knows the status of its drive system and gains insights for optimising the production and availability of drinking water. Meanwhile, planned vibration monitoring sensors will alert the utility to potential problems, contributing to higher efficiency and longevity of the pumps. They are now investigating other digital options for early detection of water leakages, which will allow for perfectly targeted maintenance across the system before any water is unnecessarily lost.

In Cusco, Peru, our partner utility has embraced digitalisation to more efficiently assess biogas production. Biogas analysers, which are currently being compared and evaluated, will  help to assess and monitor the quality of biogas they are producing from wastewater. These analysers are key components of an efficient biogas recovery system, whereby the methane and nitrous oxide generated from the breakdown of organic matter in wastewater are captured instead of escaping into the atmosphere. With an effective, digitally guided recovery system in place, the utility will power its own operations from these otherwise damaging greenhouse gases.

A Green Agenda for Digitalisation

Sensors and solutions like these are driving green digitalisation. According to a 2015 estimate, then-existing digital solutions had the potential to reduce global emissions by as much as 15% by 2030 – and the solutions are only growing in number.

In the water sector and every sector, digitalisation needs to have a small footprint and use it to create big benefits for the environment and the climate. To ensure this will happen, Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) adopted a Digital Policy Agenda for the Environment in March 2020, with measures that tie together digitalisation and environmental protection.

The Agenda grew out of a pathbreaking process in the autumn of 2019, with more than 200 experts coming together for an environmental workshop. It comprises more than 70 measures to make digitalisation green; many are already under way, others in early development with a promising future. The goal is nothing less than socio-ecological transformation across the areas of mobility, nature conservation, agriculture, water management, “Industry 4.0”, the circular economy and sustainable consumption.

WaCCliM’s ongoing work with digital tools in the urban water sector is well aligned with a significant part of BMU’s plans: the use of digital water management for better services. The Ministry is pursuing solutions to bring the German water management sector more efficient operations, savings and recovery of energy and resources, and digital planning processes for infrastructure. We look forward to bringing these experiences, too, into our global community of practice, and making the rapidly digitalising water sector a significant field of action in climate mitigation.