The future of water

Throughout history, technology has played a pivotal role in human development but what does it hold for the future of water?

From gunpowder to the compass, every human empire has risen or fallen with the help of technology. In less than a lifetime, technology has advanced so rapidly it has changed the way society behaves and operates, on a global scale. 

From the creation of the internet in 1974 to the everyday smartphone, which is more powerful than the computer that sent Apollo 11 to the moon, in just 30 years our technological advancements are clear. However, looking to the future, the next triumph of technology will not be the rise or fall of an empire, it will be the rise or fall of our species.

We are at a tipping point in our fight against climate change and resource depletion — a vital one being water. Many of the water sources that sustain our way of life are already under severe stress; however, the demand for safe, clean, water continues to rise. 

It’s projected to increase 55% by 2050 — this includes a 400% rise in demand to maintain manufacturing processes — as the global population is predicted to soar to 9.7 billion. This is two billion more people than today. According to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this means 52% of the world’s projected population will live in water-stressed regions and over five billion people will suffer from water shortages due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies.

Without action, this paints a grim picture. But, with the help of technology, we are now able to move at a pace and at a scale that has never been possible throughout our history. And artificial intelligence (AI) is at the heart of this. 

Today, AI is ubiquitous — it controls the adverts we see on social media, powers our Alexa or Siri and helps to detect fraud. In addition, AI is already proving itself to be critical in three fundamental ways to support sustainability with many possibilities for growth. 

Firstly, AI is starting to have the power to analyze and comprehend the ecological complexities of local, national and global water cycles. The combination of AI, particularly with machine learning and water process expertise already helps predict the process and mechanical behavior of water technologies and equipment,” explains Aude Giard, chief digital officer at Veolia Water Technologies

We have started using both live and forecast weather data to predict the impact on the local water infrastructure and therefore the surrounding environment. This will soon become the norm as we use algorithms for storage and optimal network flow. This is vital as extreme weather events trigger downpours since this foresight helps prevent the risk of sludge overflows.

Looking to the future of how AI can help deal with ecological complexities, Giard predicts:

“all utilities will be connected to smart, local grids that are powered by circular loops of resources — water reuse, anaerobic digestion, solar, wind, etc.  These grids will be so local and analytics will be so advanced that there will be a digital twin of every household and we will be able to meet all individual utility needs without fossil fuels or devastating natural resources.
Aude Giard
chief digital officer at Veolia Water Technologies

As well as looking at the weather and managing our needs, we’ll also be able to monitor what our environment needs depending on the local landscape and biodiversity. It will be possible to tell when forests and bushlands require watering to prevent forest fires, and we will be able to adapt irrigation to prevent flooding or even help us protect our oceans.”

The second big arena where AI will play a key role in boosting sustainability is consumer education and behavioral change. Already AI is used by consumers to improve their health and conveniently manage small household items with smart home devices. In the same sense, AI will help consumers adopt more sustainable behaviors and make better choices when it comes to their water usage. 

In the years to come we will see the development of apps for users suggesting, through the use of AI models, when to use the dishwasher or washing machine to be more sustainable — this insight would be gathered by and linked to, smart, local grids,” explains Louis W. Ø. Larsen, digital business developer for Hubgrade.

In the face of climate change, these seemingly ‘small’ everyday necessities will need to be better controlled to lessen the impact on the environment and to make sure resources are shared. As populations grow, water supplies will become more variable as demand increases and this is where AI systems will coordinate this variating supply to the demand to satisfy the system in the best possible way.” 

Larsen adds,

“I imagine that flexibility to water access could in part be solved with smaller loops or grids, like the power industry, meaning air moisture capture and neighbour scale treatment systems. Where local communities can share the available resource via apps, for example, trends in usage could then be analysed and interpreted by AI models to predict when the water would be available and where and how it is to be used instead of discarded directly. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure sort of approach.”
Louis W. Ø. Larsen
digital business developer for Hubgrade

Finally, AI will continue to support supply chains throughout manufacturing processes to optimize how vital resources, including water, are reduced, used and reused as part of the ecological transformation.

Food manufacturing is a prime example,” says Peter Stokes, director of global key accounts. “The growth in the population means we will need to produce more food, but with ever-decreasing water availability, the food we eat in the future will look very different.” 

Plant-based foods and man-made proteins will require a higher capacity to manufacture and, in order to reduce transportation, more concentrated products will be made and consumed like we see the astronauts do on the space station. The consumer will demand a shorter time from order to receipt and so the factories will need to be more predictive and agile. The factories will also become smaller, producing smaller volumes of products but with a higher number of product lines, which means the factories require more frequent cleaning and change over.” 

Stokes continues, “We already see the use of digital control within our manufacturing base, with remote control of operations becoming more commonplace; however, in the future, AI will be the link between consumer demand, factory inventory, manufacturing process and distribution. AI will predict manufacturing requirements for steam, cooling water, ingredient water, production line cleaning and availability for downtime by predicting consumer demands — for example, warm weather will trigger ice cream production.

With the continuing decline in the volume of water consumed in the factory processes, both during manufacturing and for ingredients, AI will play a bigger part in providing much greater control and predictability over availability, quality, waste and reuse of the water the factory does use.” 
Peter Stokes
director of global key accounts

Even at the start of the food chain, in agriculture, the use of hyper-local weather forecast could help adapt crop growth to weather conditions,” predicts Chloe Dupont, head of digital transformation at Veolia Group. “It will have the potential to optimize the use of water and reduce mitigating the activities’ environmental footprint.

The foundations of all of these future technologies are already in place. In addition to better managing water throughout production processes, today AI also helps identify water leakage meaning we can go one step further in reducing the amount of water wasted. And when it comes to equipment, algorithms help predict when to change filter membranes which significantly contributes to an uninterrupted clean and safe water supply in manufacturing processes,” explains Dupont. “All of these things help better protect our water cycle and help us work more in harmony with the local ecology.

“I dream that AI becomes part of the day-to-day life of water operators with live data, predictions, suggestions of actions all together supporting quicker and more informed decisions to protect water resources. I believe solutions are still to be invented in the face of increasing water challenges and collaboration between manufacturers, water experts, data scientists, start-ups and beyond will become even more fundamental to imagine innovative and digital solutions for ecological transformation.”
Chloé Dupont
head of digital transformation at Veolia Group

So, there we have it. The future of water has already started thanks to the power of AI matched with human expertise. And it will prove to be our period’s equivalent to Newton’s apple, Fleming’s penicillin and Bell’s telephone. Our experts predict the true rise of humankind will come from our ability to understand and action what we learn from super-advanced AI so let’s embrace AI for both pace and progress to protect our global empire.