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A Call for Water Infrastructure Resiliency

World Water Day provides a reminder of how vulnerable water supply is in many places across the world, including California. But an increased focus on water infrastructure resiliency can help sustain a finite water supply even as population growth and climate change add additional pressures.

Written by Cindy Wallis-Lage Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Top image: A rupture occurred involving two main trunk lines of Los Angeles' water system in 2014. The pipeline spewed more than 20 million gallons of water in the midst of California's worst drought in decades. The break in the 93-year-old pipe is a reminder of the need for water infrastructure resiliency. Damian Dovarganes, AP

The world is confronting a dizzying web of water extremes. Some communities across California and the western United States face a future with too little water, while other cities struggle to harness what they have. Headlines about aging systems that jeopardize drinking water supplies are eroding the public’s trust. From China and Africa to South America and Australia, rapid growth has exacerbated the threats posed by water scarcity.

That’s why water infrastructure resiliency questions are increasingly on the minds of the world’s citizens. Even as a universal solution eludes us, there is a common takeaway in these challenges: Our governments, community and water providers must reimagine how they plan, invest and maintain their water infrastructure.

Hurricane Sandy in the eastern U.S. was the wake-up call that crystallized “resilience” as a concept. Earthquakes in Asia, flooding in Brazil, Thailand and Indonesia, drought in California, aging systems in the United States and industrial accidents everywhere have all served to evolve water resources as a global concern. They have altered worldwide supply chains, recast insurance markets and recalculated how system resiliency is factored into planning the world’s critical infrastructure.

The critical importance of water is highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s 11th Global Risk 2016 report, which ranked water crises as the No. 3 risk with the highest impact, behind climate-change mitigation and weapons of mass destruction. The devastation that can be caused by a lack of water 
has been clearly demonstrated by many communities in states such as Texas and California over the past several years. Industry shutdowns, reduction in agriculture production, relocation of livestock and a complete alteration to the lifestyle
 of the residents that remain illustrate how devastating drought can be.

Rapid population expansions along the world’s coastlines have placed a premium on innovative solutions, such as desalination. Though the process is highly energy-intensive, Singapore, Australia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Israel, Hong Kong, India and the United States (in San Diego) are among those currently using or developing desalination facilities, which have proven effective in helping to resolve the paradox of increasing water demand and dwindling supply.

Understanding existing asset conditions and performance affords utilities the opportunity to unlock hidden capacities and do more with the assets in place. In addition, a
 strong asset management program allows optimal capital spending via risk-based planning and proactive prioritization of needs.

Resilience can also be achieved through the smart use of data and analytics. Whether actively pursued, every utility collects significant data. The question is whether the data actively drives smarter decision-making or is merely a passive database. Optimally, utilities can use data to identify performance challenges, detect pending asset failure and drive the appropriate repair actions before a failure becomes potentially catastrophic.

Data collected in regions suffering from sustained and severe drought conditions like California can be the backbone of information to monitor usage
 and enforce water rationing, as well as to quickly identify resource-wasting leaks. Advances in data analytics can provide significant cost benefits in terms of how a utility or a specific asset is managed. At the end of the day, a strong asset-management system creates a more predictable scenario for financial investment.

The world’s water supply is finite, yet demand isn’t. Increased population in combination with greater urbanization and 
a rising middle class in developing countries puts significant strain on water supply and infrastructure. Changing weather patterns complicate the demographic challenges, creating extreme conditions of water stress/scarcity as well as flooding in various communities. Lack of adequate investment has resulted in frailties within the water system, including buried infrastructure as well as many treatment systems.

The solution is not simple nor is it universal, but it is clear: Our governments, communities and water system providers must rethink how they plan, invest and maintain their water infrastructure. Resilience and successful water stewardship requires more than a focus on supply. It requires coordination with business, industry, residents and a strong embrace of technology to be the agent of change needed to ensure the sustainability of communities around the globe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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