Africa, People, Americas, Europe, Cities & Urbanisation, Asia Pacific

Crowdsourcing the first water management database—With a little help from companies

World Resources Institute | Mar 14, 2018

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This article was originally published by World Resources Institute and is republished with permission.

From Cape Town to Puerto Rico to Flint, Michigan, it’s no surprise that drought, flooding and water pollution can devastate communities, impacting lives and hindering economic growth. But the physical components of water supply – its abundance or scarcity, levels of pollution, and the competition over it — are only half of the equation when it comes to overall water security. What’s just as important is how water is managed by public institutions, such as water utilities and local governments.

But when it comes to examining and improving water management in countries and cities, there’s little data to be found. Most information focuses on physical attributes, such as quantity and quality. Though there is extensive data on global scarcity, there is limited data on water management practices.

On the other hand, companies operating in watersheds around the world already track local management practices. Crowdsourcing data through companies already tracking this information offers an opportunity to create the world’s first geodatabase of water management practices — a resource that will help keep water flowing for all users.

Why we need information about water management

Water management describes the ability of utilities to respond to crises, regulate water withdrawals and pricing and provide public information about water quantity and quality, to name a few aspects.

Even if water is physically abundant, poor management — through eroding infrastructure, weak regulations and inadequate crisis response — could make water scarce for the end user. The reverse is also true: good management can keep the taps on even when supply is limited. Water supply, therefore, depends as much on management as it does on physical resources.

Singapore is a great example of how good management can overcome scarcity: Although the country has few freshwater resources, its government has pursued water security through innovative management and advanced water reuse technology to achieve a steady supply of clean water for the public, local businesses and the environment.

Although local utilities certainly know their own operations, management information is not always publicly accessible. Even when information is available, comparing practices between locations or understanding the customer experience can be difficult. This data gap puts current management at risk and masks opportunities for improvement. Without global data on public water management:

  • Companies and multinational organizations cannot accurately assess water risk in new locations.
  • National governments struggle to identify areas with weak management, in order to improve it.
  • Financing organizations are unable to easily prioritize where investments in water management are most needed.

San Diego: Sharing knowledge makes better management possible

San Diego’s Guaranteed Water For Industry Program (GWFIP) is proof that sharing knowledge and building relationships between water managers and customers — in this case, industries — improves water policy and management. GWFIP seeks to attract businesses to San Diego by guaranteeing a water supply for operations, making the city more attractive for biotech firms, electronics factories and breweries. Specifically, the GWFIP ensures certain businesses will receive water even during droughts, if their manufacturing facilities reduce the consumption of potable drinking water and use treated wastewater to the extent possible. This practice benefits:

  • The city population, with more secure access to drinking water sources.
  • Local industries, with access to guaranteed water supplies.
  • The local utility, with a consistent revenue source to help maintain financial stability.

Sharing knowledge between water managers and businesses was crucial to making the GWFIP a success. Shifting from tap water to treated wastewater for manufacturing is a large undertaking — often requiring new pipe infrastructure, new water purification processes, and sometimes redesigning parts of a facility.

GWFIP administrators Russ Gibbon and Divian Contreras worked alongside businesses, communicating and collecting feedback to learn more about program implementation. Over time, they learned about companies’ challenges with the program, whether related to how regulations applied, technical difficulties or financial obstacles. The knowledge they gained through this process helped bring even more companies into the GWFIP, and has sparked other ideas for programs to improve San Diego’s water management.

Shared data for shared benefit

San Diego is one powerful example of how knowledge sharing and feedback mechanisms improve policies and programs that strengthen water management. How can other water utilities without a program such as GWFIP replicate the success of this type of collaboration?

Fortunately, there are additional opportunities to accelerate knowledge sharing for improved water management, using scalable technologies and approaches. WRI and MIT have developed a proven method to crowdsource local data through businesses to develop a unique water management geodatabase, which is now being scaled. This atlas will provide public access to local management information to spur the dialogues that made San Diego successful. Pinpointing areas with strong or weak water management will also allow governments, utilities, businesses and investors to more precisely channel resources to places with the most need.

Crowdsourcing better information offers an example of what is sorely needed in the water sector: replication of existing successes. There are no shortages of Flints and Cape Towns, but successful water management can take place from San Diego to Singapore — what is currently missing is the ability to capture and reproduce these successes elsewhere. Data transparency and knowledge sharing help scale those successes, by giving the public new information, by better highlighting where weaknesses lie, and by pushing utilities and their customers into dialogues and, ultimately, action.

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