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COMMENTARY

Digital transformation can help solve global water crisis

ENSURING water security - sustainable access to water for enabling livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development - has emerged as key priorities on every nation's agenda over the last decade. World Water Day aims to highlight this increasingly urgent international concern.

Asia's water supply is currently under threat from climate change. According to a 2015 Asian Development Bank report, more than three quarters of countries in Asia face serious water shortages, which pose a real threat to continued growth and prosperity for the region, if not managed proactively.

Experts have widely acknowledged that we are pushing our climate past the breaking point, even passing the "carbon threshold" in 2016 - which scientists have said is the "point of no return" for our CO2 levels.

Here in Singapore, we recognise the urgency of addressing climate change, as we dedicate this year to be the Year of Climate Action, a national initiative aimed at raising awareness of climate change. One of the programmes saw more than 4,000 participants from 30 organisations and educational institutions make a pledge earlier this month to do their part at home to save water and fight climate change.

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However, is this enough?

While citizen action is integral to the fight against climate change, the incremental changes from individual behavioural changes alone won't be sufficient to tackle this pressing issue. Few driving forces today can help us to accelerate change by leaps and bounds at the massive rate and scale we need - but digitalisation is chief among these. Industry leaders and players need to recognise how digitalisation can fundamentally transform and alleviate the issue of sustainability, especially in water.

The digital revolution touches all aspects of our human and physical world in many varied and constantly changing ways and it can answer many of our questions, including: How do we live large with a smaller impact? How can we use less but gain more?

One thing is certain: governments, companies and citizens will be relying on data and digitalisation to try to prevent a large-scale water crisis.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS WITH DIGITAL CHANGE

A common misconception for businesses is that sustainability does not make business sense. How do we meet the growing demands of consumerism without increasing the use of resources to fuel productivity?

In this digital age, there need not be a trade-off between sustainability and profitable growth. One example is the advent of Industry 4.0 or the "smart factory", where automation and data exchange help to create productivity gains for the manufacturing sector across the value chain, while saving resources by limiting material wastage and overproduction.

A key resource in industry is water. Millions of gallons of water go into making everyday products - for example, 2,500 litres of water goes into making a cotton t-shirt.

Underpinning water movement and treatment throughout the production process, pumps are responsible for a staggering 10 per cent of global electricity consumption. For pump manufacturers like Grundfos, the pursuit of digitalisation has meant incorporating intelligence into its products to make them more intuitive and connected, and thus perform more efficiently. Grundfos calls this iSolutions - a range of products with a focus on connectivity, intelligent monitoring and adjustment features, optimising water efficiency across the entire system.

Digitalisation opens the doors to a more sustainable business model that not only allows companies to produce more with less, but also avoids unnecessary waste of resources such as energy and water. With that, Singapore's Industry Transformation Maps are not only a step towards the development of an innovative economy, but also key to more efficient and sustainable ways of working.

ACCELERATING CONSUMER ACTION

The sustainable Singapore movement applies to households as well. Citizens are encouraged to adopt eco-friendly habits, such as a zero-waste lifestyle, going car-lite, and conserving electricity and water. While these lifestyle changes are commendable, the use of digitalisation at home could lead to much greater reduction in one's carbon footprint.

Smart home technology is on the rise, such as the likes of smart lighting that can be controlled with timers, light and motion sensors that can decrease energy usage drastically, and energy management systems. According to a recent report by Strategy Analytics, smart home devices will overtake the use of smartphones by 2021.

The concept of a "smart home" opens up a wealth of new opportunities for water sustainability. Lifestyle changes can be hard for some to maintain as they feel the small inconveniences that come with going "green". But the growing range of technological home applications means that Singaporeans no longer need to compromise comfort or convenience for sustainability.

One study by national water agency PUB and the National University of Singapore found that a person could save up to five litres of water a day using smart shower devices. In response, the government will be installing such devices in HDB's new Build-to-Order flats from the first quarter of 2018.

Each person in Singapore used about 148 litres of water a day in 2016, which remains some way off from the 2030 target of 140 litres a day. But with the help of smart technology, our 2030 goal is achievable.

MOVING FORWARD

In our fight against climate change, digitalisation is our ultimate ally, but it still takes people to adopt these technologies into their ecosystems in order for us to benefit.

Facing growing water scarcity, both businesses and individuals should not be put off by the cost of advanced intelligent technology, as the benefits in the long run will exceed the upfront investment. On the government front, continually exploring new innovation is also key.

Lastly, it would be strategic for solution providers to keep sustainability in mind when developing new products and services - the need will only be greater in the future.

Together, we can transition to a more sustainable world through the current digital transformation, and make every drop of water count.

  • The writer is regional managing director for Grundfos in Asia Pacific