How data can help us value water

It is vital that we use water more efficiently – data collection and analytics could provide a solution.

Just three percent of the world’s water is freshwater, the water we use for drinking, bathing, agriculture and more. And only a third of that is available for us to use. The rest is frozen in glaciers and ice caps or buried deep underground.

You would think, then, that we would be more careful with what we have. However, demand is increasing as we produce more meat, grain and cotton – all of which require significant amounts of water. Meanwhile, water infrastructure faces a $26 trillion funding shortfall worldwide by 2030, by which time demand is expected to exceed supply by 40 percent.

Fortunately, technology is helping us use water more efficiently. Using sensors to collect data and AI-supported analytics we can gain better information, which means we can make informed decisions that allow us to waste less water, farm more efficiently, cope better with droughts and floods, and even reduce potential conflict.

Water management

More than a quarter of water is lost because of leaking and burst pipes, at a cost of $14 billion per year. Managing the water supply for a city is complex and finding leaks is difficult. However, sensors can help in a number of ways. Smart meters, which are being installed across the world, can detect leaks by warning of unusual increases in consumption. There are even acoustic sensors that warn of increased noise levels from pipes that might suggest leaks. These can then be identified and fixed much more quickly.

Water pollution can cause serious health problems so quality is another vital part of supply management. Sensors and data analytics can help here too. In New York State, US, for example, the water quality of Lake George can be tracked over time. The real-time data accumulation and computer modelling allows researchers to project future scenarios and watershed responses that can be used for decision making. 


Agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s water, 60 percent of which is wasted through leaks, inefficiencies and crops that are unsuitable for the region in which they are grown and therefore require more water. Using sensors to collect data on everything from weather patterns to the chemical make-up of soil and its moisture levels, will help farmers to make better decisions about proper water use. They will know the optimum amount of water to use for irrigation based on the crop they are growing and the soil type and will be able to see how this might change over time as climate change affects conditions.

Flooding and drought

Between 1995 and 2015, 56 per cent of the people affected by weather-related disasters were affected by floods. Meanwhile, around 50 million people every year are affected by drought. Worse, floods and droughts are becoming more likely because of climate change. Early warning is vital to prevention and mitigation. One initiative, a World Resources Institute data platform called Aqueduct, is using open-source, peer-reviewed data to map water risks worldwide, including current and future risks of floods and drought. Another project has explored the use of machine learning and satellite imagery to identify flooding and allow a faster response than other methods.

Water security and conflict

A third of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of water stress. These can often be areas of violent conflict. The link between water stress and conflict is far from clear-cut but areas of water stress are often fragile, with water-related issues exacerbating existing tensions. The Water Peace and Security Partnership offers a tool that predicts conflict around the world and links it to ‘water shocks’, such as drought or flood. It considers precipitation and drought, alongside socio-economic variables, to predict conflict.

We must value water more if we are to avoid increased challenges in the coming decades. Data and technology might help us to do just that.

Related blog posts: