The Internet of Things: Creating water stability with streaming data

Water Research Scientist, IBM

Maji ni maisha, says the Swahili saying: Water is life. Without water, we die. Naturally, then, the global dialogue about water scarcity has focused intensely on subsistence for all—that is, on providing everyone reliable access to safe drinking water. But merely subsistence is not enough. When people can drink enough water to survive but cannot drink enough to thrive, what kind of existence is that?

Rethinking wells

Because water controls everything, water is a prerequisite for social stability. When water is scarce, that scarcity constrains economic growth and exacerbates security concerns such as diseases, conflicts and food production. One need look no farther to understand why nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have spent hundred of millions of dollars attempting to increase water availability in rural communities across the globe—one lonely well at a time. But such efforts aren’t working. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than half of all wells fail in only a few years, putting communities back at square one.

I have studied water for my entire career. In the US, I worked with water as part of both the private sector and the federal government. In Africa, however, I face a whole new set of challenges, and I have made overcoming them my life’s work. Why? Because I care about the progressive development of communities, and such development cannot happen in the absence of water.

Creating a vision

The picture isn’t as clear as people think: Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, water is not lacking. The supply is plentiful—thus Nigerian afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s lament: There is plenty water in Africa; water underground, water over ground and water in the air ... but look to your left, look to your right, you can’t see it. Indeed, the Congo region alone is home to as much water as is in the entire United States—and the African continent contains more than 1 trillion cubic meters of renewable groundwater, held in more than 100 million acres of arable land.

If the water exists, then why do so many Africans live water-scarce lives? I believe that African water scarcity has been caused by the absence of a compelling alternative vision for ensuring water availability. No one has sketched one—not local leaders, not NGOs. Rather, even though water provision is serious business, many think that solving water problems is as simple as drilling another well. Such attitudes have trivialized not only the work required to maintain water infrastructure, but also the role of water as a driver of social stability.

Achieving dreams

However, all this can change. Data, technology and expertise, if creatively adapted to fit the African context, can unleash a flood of possibilities.

I lead of team of researchers in Kenya who seek to inspire a new generation across sub-Saharan Africa with the dream of bringing free-flowing water to their communities. We aim to use data to make this dream come true. If provision of water becomes more about service delivery for food production, public health, commerce, investments and overall community stability and growth than it is about the installation of pipes and pumps, what new dreams and ideas might we also spark? What global water solutions might we find?

We have begun this revolution by creating what we call digital aquifers—a connected ecosystem of things and humans that runs on groundwater but that lives in the cloud. We are tapping into the Internet of Things to help improve lives and even, in some cases, save them.

Streaming information

Let’s start with the basics. Essentially, an aquifer is an underground water storage tank—think of it as a bank at which residents of a community have “accounts” by virtue of having access to groundwater. However, accounts can be overdrawn in the absence of a clear understanding of how much is in the account, how much each person is allowed and how much other account holders will be needing. To properly manage an account, then, we must always know how much it contains, which requires keeping track of how much flows in and how flows out.

A digital aquifer, then, is an aquifer that is instrumented and quantified. Sensors that are linked to wells, along with intermittent mobile data created by humans, weather data and a treasure trove of paper records, provide the base information needed for the creation of digital aquifers. We model the physical aquifer on the cloud, evaluating how quickly water is being drawn from the aquifer, and by whom, as well as how soon it can be replenished. With the addition of new wells and boreholes, we revise our estimates of water levels and availability. Ultimately, we produce water data that can be used to fundamentally change the global water conversation.

In Kenya, groundwater wells are already streaming information on water quantity. This real-time data indicates when a pump is about to fail, allowing an army of water professionals to descend bearing new parts to fix the problem. This water data allows evaluations of locations for new wells with an eye to doing regular maintenance and avoiding overuse—exactly the way to switch our focus from quenching people’s thirst to providing enough water to go around: enough to let individuals and communities thrive.

Overcoming barriers

This, of course, is only the beginning—for example, consider how many business and financial transactions around water data thus become possible. Instead of only accounting for physical water totals and water quality, we can think about the risks created by water scarcity and focus on finding ways of providing on-demand “insurance” against such risks. Moreover, we can use water data to help involve investors in our effort to progressively develop communities.

Millions of small-scale farms around the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are fed chiefly by rain. Giving them access to new wells and water data could bring a whole new set of services to farmers, diminishing the barriers to economic growth that water scarcity has erected. Banks—to give just one example—could certainly be expected to have fewer reservations than before about loaning money to farmers who now have a reliable water supply.

Similarly, water data could help water-rich developing countries negotiate with wealthier entities that might be seeking to capitalize on the natural resource. African colonization occurred, in large part, in conjunction with the discovery of underground resources. This time, things must be different, and water stability can be a decisive factor: Resource looting cannot happen when people know—and value—what they have.

Creating equity

More nations than African ones can benefit from digital aquifers, which are truly a global solution. In the Philippines, for example, digital aquifers are being built to help the government efficiently steward groundwater resources, ensuring equitable water allocations to all Filipinos. Or take California, where reservoir levels are dropping, rivers have run dry and groundwater resources are not wholly known—and this in the home of Silicon Valley, one of the last places on earth we might expect to be suffering unequal water access and uneven distribution of resources thanks to a lack of reliable supporting data.

Stable social systems rely on water, and they are driven by knowledge. In many parts of the world where water is unavailable, people face difficult decisions about where to live and how much food to grow. And as the global population increases and the global climate shifts, global water problems are becoming increasingly complex. Luckily for us, we live in a time when we have the data, the tools and the expertise to forge a path to water security for communities around the world. If we follow in Africa’s footsteps, we can all expect to thrive.