Utilities face many challenges in breaking the cycle around intermittent supply. The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to spur progress, says Raziyeh Farmani, Chair of the IWA Intermittent Water Supply Specialist Group.
International development initiatives have facilitated infrastructure delivery to increase access to improved drinking water. Despite a great deal of progress, around 1.3 billion people worldwide still have intermittent access to water. There are different reasons why utilities may consider it necessary to operate their water supply systems intermittently, such as natural, technical and financial scarcities. But intermittent operation of systems has a lot of negative consequences for utilities, consumers, and society at large. These include asset deterioration, more leaks and bursts, water quality issues, loss of income for utilities, inequity, financial burden for consumers, and public health.
Water supply systems are very complex. Their efficient operation and management, to deliver equitable supply to all consumers, remains a major challenge. Population growth, urbanisation and climate change put further pressure on these systems, and sometimes any progress made on improving them is surpassed by an increase in demand and decrease in supply. In general, utilities will have limited information about their water supply systems, as they are not monitored regularly. Therefore, it is difficult to fully understand their behaviour and develop better management measures to control them and improve their performance by transition to continuous systems.
These challenges of intermittent water supply systems are exacerbated when multiple stressors affect them simultaneously. For example, outbreaks of disease magnify the social and technical challenges. Previous outbreaks have demonstrated increased household and healthcare water demands for prevention and treatment during outbreaks. The full impact of COVID-19 on the water sector remains unclear. However, constraints such as water resources, infrastructure capacity, social distancing, remote working, and financial burdens could negatively impact the ability of water infrastructure to function successfully.
The COVID-19 opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised that ensuring safe and reliable water services is critical. The water industry has shown great resilience in responding to the challenges of the pandemic in innovative ways. Different mitigation, adaptation and coping measures have been considered, such as: crisis management tests; purchasing water treatment chemicals and fuel before lockdown; improvements to operations; remote measurement of non-revenue water (NRW); pressure management; electronic billing and communications with users; development of guidelines for operation of these systems; and financial support from governments.
However, the pandemic also highlighted vulnerabilities of the intermittent water supply systems to increased demand and decline in revenue. COVID-19 presents an opportunity to strategically rethink the way these water systems are managed to enhance effectiveness of resilience strategies – spanning Response, Reduction, Readiness and Recovery – in the water sector to react to and absorb the short- and medium-term impacts of COVID-19. The focus could be on efficient operation and management, ensuring a contribution to improved water availability, accessibility and affordability, while supporting long-term sustainable and resilient water systems by transition to continuous supply of water.
Transformation to sustainable services
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) feature a paradigm shift, with a focus on sustainable service delivery. It is widely acknowledged that without progress on SDG6 – to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030 – the other goals and targets cannot be achieved, because of high interdependencies between different goals. The UN (2020) has launched the SDG6 Global Acceleration Framework to improve progress on SDG6, because, at the current rate, the targets will not be achieved by 2030. The framework has a number of pillars, and includes five accelerators: optimised financing, improved data and information, capacity development, innovation, and governance.
Understanding dynamics of water demand, water quality, tariff systems, availability of alternative resources and supply systems, supply chain issues, shortage of skilled personnel and opportunities for digitalisation, and technical capabilities are prerequisites for proposing interventions to improve the performance of supply systems and assessing progress towards the SDGs.
There are many opportunities to leapfrog by adopting digital technology to accelerate transformation of intermittent water systems into resilient and sustainable systems. Such systems will be able to bounce back after disaster (SDG9) to improve the level of service for all users and enhance social equity (SDG10) and alleviate public health-related issues (SDG3) associated with poor water quality.
Initial investment requirements and potential impacts on human resources may raise some questions about their feasibility and act as barriers in their implementation. However, moving from risk to value creation provides great incentives for such innovations. For example, better monitoring of these systems, using smart meters and remote management technologies, can help with better water auditing, management of NRW, and issuing more accurate bills. Utilities could remotely manage their systems by better forecasting demand, detecting leaks, and digitally communicating with their customers. These, in turn, will help with increasing water availability, improving quality of service and generating revenue for utility, allowing them to provide continuous service to consumers and provision of clean water to those without access.
National governments and aid agencies are assessing long-term impacts of revenue decline and increased operational expenditure because of COVID-19 and their potential consequences for intermittent water supply systems. This could help with estimating the level of support and investment required to cope, and to improve these systems.
A recent survey of intermittent water supply systems by IWA has highlighted a great appetite for sharing knowledge and learning from other utilities. The need for more coordinated actions at national level in provision of financial and human resources, and strategic organisational guidelines, was highlighted. Financial support, practical examples on how utilities coped, and creating awareness about the benefits of continuous systems at international level were mentioned as a way to accelerate water utilities’ strength and preparedness.
Lack of e-infrastructure and financial strains are the main barriers to change. There is a consensus that to improve resilience of intermittent water supply systems, more digitalisation of utility activities is the way forward, to measure, manage, control and improve these systems. This is in line with the UN’s SDG6 Global Acceleration Framework.
As COVID-19 continues to cause disruption to all aspects of life, it is hoped that it could act as an additional incentive to accelerate transition of intermittent water supply systems towards continuous supply. •
The results of the survey by the IWA Intermittent Water Supply Specialist Group are being analysed and will be published shortly.
Professor Raziyeh Farmani is Associate Professor of Water Engineering at the University of Exeter, UK, and Chair of the IWA Intermittent Water Supply Specialist Group.