…says Alessandro Palin, president, Distribution Solutions, ABB Electrification

One third of the earth’s aquifers on the way to depletion and collapse[i]. By 2030, half the population will suffer from severe water stress, unless we unite and intervene now, to modernize the global water infrastructure.

Right now, 2.2 billion people are suffering from a lack of safe drinking water, and 4.2 billion from lack of sanitation services[ii]. Although 90% of the global population now has wells and water pipes, many of them are either inefficient or poorly managed, and the water in them is often dangerously contaminated and wasted.[iii]

But that is only the first part of our water challenge. The second part, invisible but even more dire for long-term water security, is that we are draining our groundwater aquifers at an unsustainable rate.  Groundwater provides nearly half our drinking water, 40% of the water for agriculture, and a third of the water for industry.[iv]And unfortunately, while we are consuming it at an accelerated pace to supply modern needs – for skyrocketing use in megacities, for heavy industry, and above all for agriculture – we are utterly dependent on the natural, unaccelerated rainwater cycle to “recharge” it.

Over time, without sufficient rain to recharge them, aquifers will dry up and collapse, and the land above them will sink (or “subside”). Once an aquifer collapses, it can never be reconstructed; that source of freshwater is lost forever. So, when scientists say that one third of the earth’s aquifers are on the way to depletion and collapse, that means that we will lose nearly one third of our freshwater resources.

In coastal areas, as sea levels rise due to global warming, aquifers are also filling with saltwater.  Desalination, historically energy-intensive and expensive, now offers a sustainable and economically viable alternative to natural freshwater. For example, at the world’s largest desalination plant in Abu Dhabi, UAE, a combination of digitalized medium- and low-voltage switchgear, energy-efficient motors and variable-speed drives has set new benchmarks for lowest energy consumption per cubic meter of water. By the end of 2022, the plant is expected to process enough seawater daily to serve 350,000 households.[v]Desalination will be a vital tool in the future for coastal cities whose aquifers either collapse or become saline.

However, desalination is impractical in arid inland locations and in many megacities. There, groundwater is the only practical freshwater source. So, to save our aquifers from depletion and give them a chance to recharge, we must find ways to make extracted groundwater last longer above ground.

Technically, that is feasible, if we take a holistic and integrated approach to the three major stages of water management, from groundwater extraction and treatment to distribution and use, and finally to wastewater treatment and release.

From the ground

Beginning with the extraction process, the most important thing to know is when to stop. One of the major challenges is that we can’t see the aquifers underground. With digital sensors and flowmeters, however, we can gauge how much water we are extracting, get alerted to low water levels, and avoid overextraction, and aquifer collapse.

Digitalizationof the entire water management cycle can also give utilities complete oversight and control, making the whole cycle more energy-efficient, reducing emissions and saving costs.

To the glass, industry, and agriculture

Up to 50% of our water is lost in the journey through leaky pipes – in some cases 70%. Leaky pipes also cause significant water contamination. And yet, it is a relatively simple task now to install sensors and smart water monitoring, control, and management systems that can detect leaks for swift and precise repair.

We can also recycle wastewater, safely treating it to use it again multiple times for sanitation, agricultural irrigation, and industrial use.

Back into the ground

In the last stage of water management, it is vital to ensure that the groundwater we are returning to the lakes, rivers, and oceans is as clean and pure as possible, so it doesn’t contaminate our waterways or soil, endanger biodiversity, or negatively impact public health. For example, the largest sewage treatment plant in Asia, serving more than 7 million residents in Shanghai metropolitan area, uses a digitalized, energy-efficient system to manage advanced phosphorus removal, chlorination and UV light disinfection, guaranteeing water quality and dramatically reducing pollutants.[vi]

Collaboration across borders

However, the greatest challenge to saving our groundwater is not technology, it is international collaboration. At least 145 countries share an aquifer with neighboring countries.

That means that pesticides and other contaminants can easily flow through shared aquifers to multiple countries. The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, for example, is both heavily polluted and facing aquifer depletion, putting at risk the health and lives of 10% of the global population in India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.[i]We must institute standards of water management and care, as well as agricultural and industrial standards, that transcend national borders.

We have reached a dangerous historical tipping point. To rescue our groundwater aquifers from contaminants and irreversible collapse, we need to invest, equip, and collaborate across borders. We need to reduce groundwater extraction and water waste, and increase circularity and alternative freshwater sourcing. If we do, we can finally ensure that everyone, everywhere has enough water.