Get the latest delivered to your inbox
Privacy Policy

Now Reading

How Technology Can Help Save Our Water Supply

By Christina Shim | Vice President and Global Head of Product, IBM Sustainability Software

How Technology Can Help Save Our Water Supply

By Christina Shim | Vice President and Global Head of Product, IBM Sustainability Software

Published 03-24-23

Submitted by IBM

Overhead shot of water treatment facility

IBM Blog

A 2021 United Nations report finds that 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries which, according to the World Health Organization, is expected to be exacerbated in some regions due to climate change and population growth.

To sustain lives on Earth, we must protect the health of its water resources and be efficient in our consumption, including minimizing waste in water distribution. These tasks involve a variety of equipment, assets, and people, and at IBM, we have deep experience in using technology to bring together data and systems to assist. We know how to connect and contextualize information from various sources, and how to leverage AI to translate such data into actionable insights—ones that can make a true difference in solving sustainability challenges like these.

Our sustainability solutions enable organizations to marry data with AI insights so they can better manage operations and optimize them. With data-driven technology, we can help organizations reduce waste and protect our precious water resources to meet the needs of current and future generations.

Eliminating Waste

One type of waste is unaccounted-for or non-revenue water (NRW)—water that has been produced but is “lost” before it reaches the user. The World Bank estimates that some 45 million cubic meters of water are lost daily due to issues like leaks and pipe bursts—adding up to a value of over US$3 billion per year. Merely cutting the amount of NRW in developing countries by half would translate to enough fresh water to serve around 90 million people.

The first step in cutting NRW is knowing where it is occurring, and that’s where IBM’s sustainability solutions can help. For example, the IBM Maximo Application Suite incorporates various sources of information from Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and visual inspection data, and applies AI to detect anomalies in pipes or pumps. If the system pressure drops and flow levels surge, operators will receive a real-time alert that a pipe burst has occurred. Maximo is also effective at detecting smaller changes that are indicative of minor leaks or malfunctions in pumping equipment.

Another way to cut NRW involves better management of the overall health of water distribution systems. Many municipalities and companies operate infrastructure with aging components. Even in developed countries, water and sewer pipes can remain in use for well over a century. To maintain these systems, organizations will often schedule routine maintenance work based on the age of components. Yet the oldest pipes in a system might not necessarily be the ones that are in the worst condition.

Maximo—and the IBM TRIRIGA Application Suite—can help monitor and manage water infrastructure and provide predictive insights that enable more informed decisions. Maximo comes with out-of-the-box tools designed specifically for the water industry to predict where issues will likely arise based on the analysis of KPIs. With a range of custom predictive analytics tools, engineers and operators can have improved visibility to the integrity of their infrastructure and reduce NRW events. Utility companies can also avoid expenses associated with unnecessary maintenance on infrastructure that is performing perfectly fine.

To help improve access to safe drinking water to all, IBM is committed to continuing to offer our technology to support this cause. This year, the new cohort of our IBM Sustainability Accelerator—our global, pro bono social impact program—will apply IBM technologies and expertise to scale innovative water management solutions. IBM will look to support projects that help improve equitable access to safe drinking water for all, improve water quality by reducing pollution, increase water-use efficiency across all sectors, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, increase sanitation management, and reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity – among other purposes.

Protecting Quality

In addition to minimizing water waste, we must also protect the quality of water resources. For example, for the past 10 years, IBM has been working with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Lake George Association, a non-profit lake advocacy group, at Lake George in upstate New York. Our shared goal has been to monitor anthropogenic changes to the lake, or those environmental changes influenced directly or indirectly by people. The project employs a sophisticated system of IoT sensors, AI, analytics technologies, and predictive computer models to paint a detailed, real-time, and ongoing picture of the water’s quality and movement. When a health and public safety issue emerges—like a harmful algal bloom (HAB), which can render water undrinkable for humans and animals—this project helps us understand the cause.

At Lake George, IBM Research’s scientists and engineers developed an integrated platform to perform visualization and analytics of nearly every important aspect of the lake and its surrounding watershed. This platform pulled in detailed weather data from IBM at a 330-meter resolution and 10-minute intervals, including: temperature, precipitation, wind speed, air pressure, and solar radiation. The data is then fed into a hydrological model with information on rainfall and snow melt, so the team can understand the rate and direction of the water flowing into the lake. This combined data in turn feeds a hydrodynamic model, which explains how water is moving within the lake itself.

The result of this work is a picture of how the lake’s physics, chemistry, and biology are changing—from the rise in chloride levels caused by the runoff of anti-icing salt used on the surrounding roadways, to the presence of nutrients from septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, and fertilizers that could be contributing to HABs. The team then runs computer models to calculate how these alterations can be reversed through better controls and advises the local municipality on best practices for their remediation. In response to models that showed the lake’s resiliency, or, its ability to return to more pristine conditions should salinated runoff be curbed, the Lake George Association launched The Lake George Road Salt Reduction Initiative.

The open-source technology has already had its foundation applied to other lakes around the country, including Chautauqua Lake in Western New York and Skaneateles Lake in the Finger Lakes district in New York.

Improving Operations

Significant challenges exist toward meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of water and sanitation for everyone by 2030, and achieving these goals will need all of the good ideas and collaboration we can muster, aided by technology. Fortunately, collecting the underlying data necessary to assess our progress against sustainability goals is increasingly a priority for businesses and governments, and technology has not only enabled improved insights from, but also greater transparency of data. These insights and new transparency have allowed businesses, governments, and local communities to partner in new way through more holistic decision making that meet their collective needs.

For example, in Melbourne, Australia, the government-owned authority that protects and manages major water resources for the city, Melbourne Water, treats about 90% of sewage at their Eastern and Western Treatment Plants. One of Melbourne Water’s primary expenses is its energy consumption, which is required to support activities of water management. Their energy consumption accounts for about half the total carbon emissions of the state’s water sector. Mindful of the water-energy nexus, Melbourne Water is using the IBM Envizi ESG Suite to help proactively manage its portfolio of transactional energy data and to eliminate the data retention and reporting challenges hindering improvements in operational efficiency and advancements against sustainability goals.

Now, Melbourne Water stakeholders have a direct view into a single source of data for all of the organization’s energy and emissions metrics. Using Envizi reporting tools and leveraging the value of data to support its sustainability efforts, Melbourne Water has been able to focus on protecting the public water supply and meeting the needs of its customers while lowering its operational impact on climate.

While there are numerous important issues facing communities around the globe, IBM has been committed to environmental responsibility for more than 50 years. As indicated in its 2021 ESG Report, IBM views environmental leadership as a long-term strategic imperative, demonstrated today as we continue to set ambitious goals and apply our technologies to accelerate solutions to global environmental challenges. For example, as part of its 21 goals for environmental sustainability, IBM’s water conservation goal is to achieve year-to-year reductions in water withdrawals at larger IBM locations in water-stressed regions.

As we observe World Water Day this year, we are highlighting these examples to show how applying technology to solve the most pressing challenges like the global water crisis can help us make meaningful and demonstrable progress toward achieving our sustainability goals.  

Learn more about IBM Sustainability solutions

IBM Logo



Innovation – joining invention and insight to produce important, new value – is at the heart of what we are as a company. And, today, IBM is leading an evolution in corporate citizenship by contributing innovative solutions and strategies that will help transform and empower our global communities.

Our diverse and sustained programs support education, workforce development, arts and culture, and communities in need through targeted grants of technology and project funds. To learn more about our work in the context of IBM's broader corporate responsibility efforts, please visit Innovations in Corporate Responsibility.

More from IBM

Join today and get the latest delivered to your inbox