Home People & Planet Five lessons for digitising Asia’s water systems

Five lessons for digitising Asia’s water systems

Neeta Pokhrel
A wide range of innovative digital technologies can improve the efficiency and resilience of water services
Chief of Water Sector Group, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at the Asian Development Bank

Organisations managing water on the ground – urban or rural supply, irrigation, water resources – are learning that digitalisation is a must to become resilient and to deal with shocks, whether they are pandemics, economic downturns, or climate change.

COVID-19 helped bring this message home for many. The constraint in many cases is not resources, but lack of awareness and apprehension on where to start and how to sustain reform.

The baseline for digitalisation in water entities in the Asia and Pacific region is quite low. Basic systems for water entities in other countries, such as customer and asset database and billing, water quantity and quality monitoring, simple early warning systems for floods and disasters, are still missing in many parts of Asia.

Capacities and skill-bases are low, so any system piloted is hard to sustain. Many water entities are hesitant and slow to adapt. Too often the resistance stems from lack of awareness or misunderstanding about what it really means for them, what the cost and benefits are, what it may entail to sustain it.

Moreover, keeping up with upgrades of digital tools can be daunting and expensive, especially for utilities that are struggling to manage outdated infrastructure with minimal staff.

On the other hand, there is evidence of success across a wide range of innovative technologies to improve efficiency and resilience of services and communities.

Here are the top five lessons to accelerate digitalisation in the water sector, especially those at an early stage of the process, and how development partners can support.

Digitalise incrementally and at your pace. Demonstrating that users can choose the speed at which they apply technology is key to its adoption.

What local governments and water utilities may need is not a massive digital overhaul but step-wise solutions tailored to their capacity and need. Not everyone can afford the best there is on offer. Many areas can begin with a simple solution.

The mobile phone is one example. More and more services can be delivered via mobile phone and managed by self-configuring, low-cost, “Internet of Things” devices. Mobile-based systems can be used for customers to report leaking pipes and utility staff to receive alerts.

Such an approach has been used in a water supply project in Kolkata city in India, where inexpensive sensors were used to monitor water level inundation, quality and quantity of water at treatment plants. These were linked to water operators’ mobile phones for maintenance management. These were only linked to a larger level central database at a later stage, in order to link to financial management systems.

This illustrates how smart water implementation should start incrementally—with simple and practical use cases with minimum functionality that demonstrate tangible and clear value for users. Once work processes within the government unit or local utility are established, systems can gradually expand with more functionality.

The pandemic has given the water sector a sudden but much needed push toward adopting digital and space technology.

Align digitalised services with wider system changes. The transition to digital architecture for water services cannot happen overnight, and it will not be a simple or sustainable switch from one system to another on its own. Digitalised services must come with wider change management and capacity building, so they can be sustained for many years to come.

Water entities need long-term assistance with the continual development of organisational strategies, structures, and work processes as they adjust to the digital environment. These also require both financial and human resources and the right enabling environment.

Focus on serving the most vulnerable. The distraction of exciting technology must not overwhelm the ultimate goal of improved water services or resilience from water related disasters, which is to help those in most need. Paying attention to the needs of poor and vulnerable groups will allow demand to shape solutions, rather than technology providers searching out problems to solve.

One example of this are early warning systems for floods and cyclones. The most effective early warning systems have been designed with extensive consultation with poor communities living along coastal areas, which are most affected.

Ready your champions, incentives, and local support systems. Technology is advancing faster than can be absorbed by many government agencies and water user groups in Asia and the Pacific. Simply introducing new digital tools to water entities is not enough. Successful and sustainable adoption often depends on having a technology “champion”—a top manager in a local government or water utility who drives the process.

Leadership, flexibility, and continued support from the provider helps maintain momentum for the digital uptake, as well as using standards or goals that publicly highlight local authorities who have succeeded in adopting smart technologies.

Since digital change needs to be managed over the long term, it makes sense to develop and nurture a local digital ecosystem to support it that includes information technology governance, data management services, instrumentation management, and repair services. Without a local support network, water utilities would depend on expensive consulting and expert services from overseas or from large urban centres. This would be time-consuming and less resource efficient.

Pilot and test to demystify. Local authorities and entities will benefit greatly from small demonstrations or pilots with minimal investment and staff resources. Pilot projects can be used not only to test and adapt systems to specific local conditions but also as an avenue to dispel fears on adoption, provide evidence of benefits, and attract outside funding.

Digitalisation increases entry points for private sector and thus opportunities to mobilise private financing and improve governance, aspects that many local authorities, governments, and development partners are promoting in the water sector.

Challenges remain, but more cost-effective systems are arriving every day. The pandemic has given the water sector a sudden but much-needed push toward adopting digital and space technology. It is time to seize this opportunity.

This article was first published on the Asian Development Blog and can be read here.

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Neeta Pokhrel
Chief of Water Sector Group, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at the Asian Development Bank

Neeta has designed and implemented urban infrastructure development projects in most South Asian countries. Prior to ADB, she worked as an independent consultant on international assignments in Asia and as a project manager in the construction industry in Australia. Spanning over two decades, her professional experience focuses on planning, engineering design, and management of large-scale urban infrastructure projects, and the introduction of public private partnerships in water utilities in South Asia. She enjoys working with cities to improve their service delivery and to enhance urban resilience.

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