The importance of water management to the smart city

This report originally appeared on GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

In the emerging vision for the smart city of tomorrow, we often hear about next generation smart grids, smarter buildings that manage themselves to conserve resources, and smart transportation systems that will lessen congestion.

In fact, Pike Research’s Eric Woods recent report for GigaOM Pro, “Key Technologies for the Future of the Smart City” (subscription required) estimated that the global market for smart city investments will reach $16 billion by 2020 with heavy growth in Europe and Asia-Pacific.

But we hear much less about smart water systems for the smart city, and the need to develop more efficient approaches to water as a resource. Part of this is basic developed world bias. A brief look at the U.N.’s freshwater availability map shows that nations with water stress (less than 1700 cubic meters per person per year) and water scarcity (less than a 1000) are mainly found in the Middle East, parts of Africa, China and Southeast Asia. Most of the developed world has been lucky enough to grow up in areas of relative water abundance.

Urbanization is accelerating, however, with a billion and half people expected to move to the city in the next 20 years, and McKinsey has predicted that by 2030 water consumption will increase by 40 percent. There have been signs of problems in international megacities like Mexico City where 5 million residents awoke to dry taps in 2009 and Mumbai where 5,000 tankers deliver 50 million liters of water each day, the precious resource going to the highest bidders. Even domestically, many continue to point out that with less than 15 inches of annual rainfall and its dependence on water from the Colorado River, where demand is expected to overwhelm supply in the next half century, Los Angeles’s water supply is risky.

One of the first implementations of smart water systems is smart water meters. A report last year pegged the European smart water meter market at 13 billion pounds by 2020, which is interesting given the fact that there are far fewer top down government mandates for smart water meter deployment than there have been for smart meters for the electricity grid. By 2030 Britain hopes to have all homes installed with smart water meters, which utilities use to identify leaks, create peak pricing mechanisms to incentivize conservation, and catch people who are violating water use restrictions. Designs are already circulating that sync water meters with iPads to give users up to the minute info on their water use, which could drive home to consumers the cost of watering that lawn.

Woods’s report for GigaOM Pro examined next generation greenfield communities like Masdar City in the United Arab Emerates (UAE). Masdar City use 54 percent less water than the average UAE city and Woods notes that the city is deploying diverse strategies from micro-irrigation to treated wastewater for landscaping to highly efficient water fittings. The goal is to get to 180 liters per day per person from the current norm of 550 liters per person per day in the UAE.

But in the developing world, where 1 billion of the 3 billion global urban dwellers live in slums with limited access to clean water and additional water management challenges brought on by climate change induced flooding and droughts, the solutions may be less technological. The solutions in the urban developing world revolve around limiting demand, reducing pollution to the water ecosystem, and preventing leakage from aging infrastructure. Though there is evidence that municipalities are starting to take the initiative, as the city of Mumbai has been working with global meter giant Itron to deploy advance water metering infrastructure. One of the issues is how expensive water has become for the urban poor. A slum dweller in Nairobi, Kenya pays 5 to 7 times more for a liter of water than the average North American.

For the first time in history more Chinese now live in cities than in rural areas with per capita income for Chinese city dwellers three times that of rural citizens. The economic drivers of urbanization will remain strong which means cities will have to get more intelligent in their management of water resources. And that goes for all cities, from Mumbai to LA.