Space and the city: future visions of water

In his latest blog, Paul O’Callaghan, Chief Executive of BlueTech Research shares water innovations occurring on the ground and relayed from space.

At BlueTech Research we are always scanning the horizon for significant developments in water policy and technology that will help drive global transformation on water. One that caught my eye this week was a declaration to promote blue-green infrastructure, signed by the mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell.

Cantrell joined 30 other mayors who signed the C40 Urban Nature Declaration, an initiative from New York based not-for-profit C40 Cities. This network of the world’s megacities supports collaborative efforts to share knowledge and drive meaningful, measurable and sustainable action.

Participating cities must ensure that 30-40% of their built-up surface is green or permeable by 2030. New Orleans is currently at 20% and has allocated nearly US$200 million in federal grants towards green infrastructure and not-for-profit organisations that are educating residents about rain gardens and other initiatives that can prevent flooding.

Why is this interesting?

Firstly, there is reference to the use of a tax as an economic instrument to encourage residential and commercial property owners to invest into their own permeable areas. If the proposed monthly charge of around US$15 for residential homeowners comes to pass, it would qualify as an innovation in policy. The executive directors of two not-for profits, Urban Conservancy and Water Collaborative, Dana Eness and Jessica Dandridge, argue that New Orleans needs a stormwater or drainage fee, based on the amount of impervious surface on each property.

Secondly, it highlights the role of mayors to lead city-level change. These mayors now form a global constituency of cities that have shared issues and are a powerful peer group.

If there is one flooding event that everyone around the world still remembers, it is Hurricane Katrina, which is embedded in the collective psyche even deeper than Cape Town’s Day Zero on water supply. That hurricane and the devastating impact it had on a major city, in the world’s largest economy, resonates at an almost mythical level.

There are over 500 separate flood myths known across the thought and belief systems of people globally, which highlights the significant role major water events play in our archetypal memory. It is very heartening to see the city that became infamous due to a tragic flood is now embracing a sponge city philosophy to help ensure it is better able to absorb rainfall in the future.

Geospatial observations

Taking a very different perspective, indeed the one looking at Earth from space, there is cause for optimism on the opportunities in the water sector from geospatial technologies.  A ​detailed report from the Association of ​Geospatial ​Industries (AGI)​ in India says these technologies are critical for the country’s water sector, helping collect data about assets and resources, but also enabling “analysis and interpretation, reporting and monitoring, planning and decision making and to take informed action.”

​India’s heavy dependence on ​groundwater, along with its high population density and significant agricultural economy, makes it one of the ​countries worst affected ​by the ​water crisis. ​The report, Potential of Geospatial Technologies for the Water Sector in India, makes 12 key recommendations and shares a wide range of case studies, showing a way forward for a country with immense challenges. It builds on a synopsis report BlueTech has previously written on this topic.

Satellite monitoring and mapping

BlueTech is constantly tracking advances in geospatial technologies in water globally and one recent example comes from the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Satellite data is being used to monitor harmful algal blooms (HABs) in surface waters via a new tool called CyANWeb.

Federal, state, Tribal and local partners can now identify when and where HABs are forming, using the information to inform people wishing to swim, fish and boat in surface waters. The tool can alert users based on specific changes in the colour of the water in over 2,000 of the largest lakes and reservoirs in the US.

Satellite data has also been used to map flooded areas in Germany in recent weeks. Over 180 people died in recent events in Germany and Belgium when record rainfall caused rivers to burst their banks, washing away homes and other buildings. The events have been attributed to climate change. Data from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission of the European Space Agency has been used to map flooded areas to support relief efforts.

Space calling Earth

The report from AGI is an insightful overview of how earth observing systems (EOS) can support water management at the local, national and international level; while the use of Copernicus Sentinel 1 to map flooding and CyANWeb to detect algae blooms provide illustrative examples of the direction of travel for geospatial technologies.

At BlueTech, we continuously study these trends and developments to better understand the opportunities emerging across the value chain. As a research organisation, we identify and assess the value of these new tools to advise our clients on the water risks they face, and ways to mitigate those risks.

Reflecting on the C40 mega-city greening initiatives, geospatial data can potentially help to quantify the impact and benefit of blue-green infrastructure, just as it can prevent eutrophication and flooding, by drawing on sensor data and artificial intelligence in integrated catchment management approaches.

Earth observation systems widen the aperture of what is possible and are disruptive, just as cell phones were to fixed-line telephony. Much of the data is provided by government bodies and is analogous to the internet as an enabler that will lead to a host of as yet unimagined, market-creating opportunities.

They offer ripe ground for value-driven innovation and will allow for the creation of tools that will benefit water utilities and corporate water end-users to better manage water. A rich source of investment opportunity can be expected for funds interested in digitally-enabled, service-based businesses.

The opportunities for water technology companies are that it can help to build the impact case for the solutions they provide, such as leak detection, network management, nutrient removal, flood management, aquifer recharge and water reuse.