News from the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research

digitainable project: Mapping the Digitalisation Capabilities for Water Security

Logo: Digitainable ProjectWith no more than a decade left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the fact that progress has been inadequate so far, there is a growing need to increase the effectiveness of decisions and actions. Water is essential to realize all the SDGs, meet global changes‘ challenges, and fundamental human and environmental development aspects. Moreover, it has become an essential element in the fight against poverty and sustaining peace and political security. Sustainable Development Goal 6 on ‚clean water and sanitation‘ covers aspects beyond water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and includes all aspects of the water sectors, recognizing that water influences the whole development agenda. SDG 6 has 8 targets to be achieved, and 12 indicators measure the progress of fostering universality and integration across nations and encouraged corresponding actions. As a crucial and relatively rare resource, water contributes to creating and maintaining human security concerning the environment, forming the ‚water security‘ as a prerequisite. UN-Water defined water security as: „The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities and acceptable quality of water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability“ (UN-Water, 2013).

Meanwhile, water insecurity is emerging in various forms, as a massive challenge for the global community. Estimations from the World Resources Institute indicate that approximately one-quarter of the world population experiences exceedingly high baseline water stress levels. According to MIT (2015), by 2050, this is projected to escalate to more than half. Consequently, water security is a growing concern for a sustainable future. How can it be ensured there is enough water with acceptable quality, available for human and ecosystem health, livelihoods, and economy?

Digitalisation and artificial intelligence capabilities for SDG 6

Icon: Sustainable Development Gola 6: Clean Water and SanitationThe wide range of long-lasting water security challenges, such as scarcity, low-quality, conflict, and many more, requires a wide range of innovative solutions. As a promising game-changer, digital technologies‘ ongoing development and integration provide opportunities for SDG 6. The promise of technological innovation becomes a source of optimism for water security while advancements in digital technologies prove to utilize and conserve water resources more efficiently. Digitalisation and artificial intelligence (D&AI) bring a novel chapter to data and decision-support systems to develop innovative forms of institutions, governance, and enabling infrastructure in the water sector. Smart water applications optimize the way water and wastewater services are used and managed, allowing more efficient allocation of limited resources. D&AI’s potential such as cloud computing, big data, machine learning, blockchain, internet of things, or virtual and augmented reality, are often designated with incremental innovations. For instance, blockchain is a continuously evolving digital record structure that provides a secure and reliable platform for protected data sharing in application areas such as water and wastewater management to solve the distribution problems, mitigate the risk involved, and monitor the water management system proactively. Alternatively, digital platforms for citizen science and crowdsourcing can contribute to early warning systems and provide data for validating disaster forecasting models, leading to knowledge management with civil society’s participation in collecting and using data.

These digital-based innovations deal with connectivity, data processing, and built-in analytics support the movement towards innovative virtualization and autonomous decision-making processes in the water industry. However, technology alone is not the solution. The changes in social interactions and new means for inequalities will continue adding to the water security challenges unless they are understood and actively addressed in time. Even more notably, gaps exist in the broader understanding, relevancy, and development benefits of using digital technologies in water management practices. Sustainable solutions require integrated approaches, simultaneously addressing technical, institutional, financial, social, and environmental issues.

It is vital to recognize that the water sector’s digitalisation changes are not limited only to technological advances. Changes appear in socioeconomic development, institutional arrangements, governance, education for new competencies and cognitive capacities, and many other aspects. Institutional and technological capacity-building strategies are the basis for improving water resources management in the digital age to ensure fair and sustainable water services access.

Link to the digitaliable project

Water and digitalisation have been connected along their path of development, and their innovative combination may provide new capabilities in the water sector. Given the existing gap in integrated knowledge of digitalisation and SDGs, the project digitainable studies how, why, and where D&AI contribute to the expansion of existing procedures in-place to achieve the SDGs.

D&AI offer both opportunities and challenges for the implementation of SDG6. As part of the research activities, the digitainable team investigate areas of the requirement to build knowledge and alertness for shaping the readiness of water sectors and relevant institutions to perceive digital technologies‘ evolving role. The researchers showcase how the ongoing development and integration of digital technologies as promoting tools provides opportunities for SDG 6 and its targets to rapidly improve water management in a sustainable manner to address water security. A survey is developed to understand and identify the degree of existing informed and integrated knowledge among water actors on the impact of digitalisation in their fields of expertise and work. Building on the survey result, an assessment model will be developed to emphasize and classify areas of change, essential factors, and fundamental capacities that D&Al create for SDG 6.

To expand on this study, forthcoming research projects will be developed in cooperation with partners within and beyond the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research.

If you are interested in cooperation on topics related to water and digitalisation, please contact:

Dr. Mahsa Motlagh

Researcher, Project digitainable

Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research/ Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB)

Address: Genscherallee 3, D-53113 Bonn

Phone: +49(0)228 / 73-68700