An innovator’s perspective: Building water resilience in a digital age
At a glance
How can we protect our communities, economies and ecosystems against water-related disasters?
In the face of intensifying climate challenges and unprecedented variability, how can we fortify our communities, empower our economies, and safeguard our ecosystems against the rising tide of water-related disasters?
A recent research study, Aquanomics by GHD, has helped bring to light the other side of our relationship with water – the hazards and disasters. The intensifying climate crisis has been predicted to cause more extreme water events, which cause widespread disruption and loss. In 2021 alone, over 100 million people globally were impacted by severe flooding, storms, and droughts. Weather and water extremes account for almost USD20 billion in economic damage annually, and total deaths are often in the thousands. The risk to economies from these water-related disasters can potentially wipe USD 5.6 trillion from the GDPs of Australia, Canada, China, the U.K. (United Kingdom), the Middle East, and the U.S. by 2050. The losses, however, vary from country to country depending on exposure, existing infrastructure, local geography, policies towards mitigation, and local early warning and prevention systems.
What is clear is that the variety of water risks that communities, economies, governments, and businesses face around the globe are all different. There can be no panacea for improving water resilience. Resilience in the face of water scarcity will be vastly different from resilience in a flood-prone region, but the two are still interconnected by the water cycle. The age of large-scale, 100-year engineered interventions has ended, as these can no longer be assumed adequate to protect and safeguard communities under rapidly changing conditions and variability in climate systems.
Uncertainty, variability, and the rapid onset of water-related hazards and disasters require near real-time intelligence and information based on current conditions and an adaptive and iterative approach to local responses. This involves the integration of digital technologies that have the potential to reshape the very essence of water system understanding and resilience. This new form of technology can allow for decisions to be made on accurate and current data, lead to early warnings for dangerous situations and events, help to identify unseen risks and recognise vulnerable areas.
Game-changing advances in data collection and analysis
GHD has recently partnered with Divirod, a US-based company that collects, maintains, and mobilises environmental and satellite data to drive strategic decisions that mitigate property and ecological risks or life-threatening situations posed by water. Divirod clients can easily access accurate, timely, high-quality, hyperlocal water datasets and a secured data visualisation platform. This allows organisations to leverage analytics and predictive models to help reduce exposure to water-related risks. The Divirod solution also uses existing publicly available datasets and augments them with the proprietary data collected by the sensors built by the company.
This near real-time data collection and analysis is a new path forward for cities, water utilities, emergency services, and businesses in areas prone to drought, flooding or where water levels and risk can change rapidly, like tidal areas and coastlines.
In a recent interview, Divirod founder and CEO Javier Marti described solutions provided by Divirod and how they can increase resilience and risk preparedness for utilities, communities, and businesses. Three unique insights are described here.
1. Historical data lacks spatial and temporal resolution
According to Marti, current water data – levels, depths, precipitation, accumulation, and moisture – is insufficient, often inferred or modelled from remote sources, and lacks ground truth. Divirod was created to fill the gap and enhance our reliance on historical data. This is done through the water monitoring sensors developed by the company and by incorporating other publicly available data streams. This data is combined using Divirod’s data analytics software to create a near real-time early warning system.
“Forecasts and models made from disparate data sources collected from various organisations lead to blind spots and unwise decision-making. There must be a mindset shift, and we must think more holistically when dealing with water risks,” said Marti. “We need to ensure that we have enough intelligence and information about events as they happen. We must shift from making decisions based on past data points and bring that decision-making into the present.”
A shift to more adaptive approaches is required to overcome the challenges of traditional forecast and modelling techniques. Given the unprecedented variability and uncertainty in the current context, these adaptive approaches should incorporate near real-time data, analytics, and predictive modelling. Organisations can begin navigating uncertain waters and building resilience by moving away from conventional, static models and towards more flexible approaches using digital technologies and near real-time data.
2. Tailoring solutions for each unique application
Developing resilience, mitigating risk, and reducing exposure to water-related hazards and disasters will differ for each community, utility, or business. This is due to the diverse nature of water risks they might face. A company in a flood-prone region would need a different type of early warning than a community in an area where droughts might occur. Coastal regions where sunny-day flooding occurs will need a separate risk management plan than an area where flooding is rare. Unique geographies, watershed profiles, and climate conditions must be considered when assessing risk and finding dangerous and catastrophic conditions before they develop.
As discussed above, exact and current data is paramount to enabling these planned responses to be effective. However, tailoring that data to fit the needs of the utility, community, or business seeking that information is also critical. Every client has different considerations when addressing the resilience of water risks. And to fully appreciate those risks and distribute resources appropriately, their digital solutions need to be tailored to match the unique situations they face.
“Every business and community have different considerations when addressing resiliency. The nature of a company or community, location, and the type of assets you must protect is always unique. No two will ever be the same. Having digital technology in place is one important but tiny step in tailoring solutions to individual situations,” said Marti. “The second step is deciding how to use the data they collect and how it can help them anticipate and avoid disasters.
Water is just one element, one puzzle piece. It is the glue that connects everything. But to use that glue effectively, it must be put into context. Water measurement data must be combined with other data types and then correlated to create unique value for communities and businesses.”
Digital solutions are pivotal to enacting near real-time water management strategies, minimising risks, and reducing exposure to potentially damaging water and weather-related events. The wide range of digital solutions, disparate data streams, and variable conditions have made it so that there is no one size fits all solution to address these challenges. Solutions must be custom designed and tailored to suit the unique aspects of each community or business looking to improve its risk management and early warning systems.
3. From reactive to proactive
A new era in risk management, disaster mitigation, and early warning of potential catastrophes requires ending the old reliance on static models and decision-making processes. Digital solutions like those offered by Divirod can provide near real-time data to aid this transition from a prescriptive to a more proactive and informed decision-making process.
The solutions offered by Divirod allow for developing and refining predictive models and enhanced analyses of potential scenarios. This all stems from the near real-time data collection from the sensors deployed by the company and large-scale data collection from other publicly available data sources. By continuously updating these models while monitoring the sensors in near real-time, anomalies or deviations can be detected early before dangerous or catastrophic conditions develop.
“Our network supplies data to our algorithms and data analysis and visualisation dashboard continuously. It is like having a picture that develops instantly every time we look at it. If we detect an anomaly in an area we monitor and collect data for, we can determine how that anomaly will propagate. We can tell how it will propagate, in which direction, and towards which assets. This allows instantaneous decision-making because the data is from now, not past historical conditions. Divirod’s algorithms always calculate and analyse data, allowing us to anticipate and act now,” said Marti. “Water is constantly moving and changing, and with our developing understanding of variability and uncertainty in climate and weather systems, how dynamic they are and how fast they change, we need the ability to act at once when we see an anomaly develop or conditions change somewhere. This might be a one-millimetre rise in the level of a reservoir or a tide higher than forecast; whatever the condition, we can see it and decide if that threatens our client’s downstream assets.”
Timely and exact data from digital technology is needed to pivot from prescriptive to proactive decision-making and risk management approaches. This pivot will allow for better resilience and risk management for utilities, communities, and businesses by allowing for earlier interventions when potential risks and vulnerabilities are identified.