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Smart Water: Digitizing Utilities for Resilience and Efficiency

In this Q&A, Cisco’s Global Industry Solutions Executive and Global Water Business Lead Sielen Namdar discusses ways that digitizing water systems can help utilities and governments enhance service and ensure safety throughout the entire water cycle.

What are the biggest challenges governments and utilities face managing their water systems?

Utilities have been under tremendous pressure from legacy infrastructure and an aging workforce, as well as increased cost of operating and maintaining facilities in the face of climate change and stringent environmental regulations. And then the pandemic hit. Now utilities have had to enable a remote workforce and conduct remote operations securely. Water utilities and other critical infrastructure organizations will need to be resilient moving forward to maintain business continuity and high levels of service while assuring public health in the face of various crises.

In what ways can utilities become more efficient in collecting digital intelligence from their systems?

Digitization allows water utilities to have visibility into their systems. Real-time plant environment monitoring can ensure all equipment is operating properly; diagnostic intelligence in distribution system monitoring can help pinpoint sources of leaks and water loss in a timely manner; and implementing predictive analytics and AI helps identify asset failures ahead of time. These solutions allow utilities to extend the life and maximize the use of existing infrastructure, as well as increase efficiencies and detect anomalies so they can deploy crews before a catastrophic event takes place.

How can governments and utilities leverage digital intelligence to address new regulatory requirements?

Digital intelligence is a very effective tool in meeting regulatory requirements. For example, many communities are under consent decrees for managing their combined sewer overflows. Technology can help assess their quality before discharge in real time, and if the quality meets certain thresholds, they may not need to invest in building additional gray infrastructure.

How should governments and utilities think about securing these digital systems?

Cybersecurity is a major challenge and is top of mind for water and wastewater utilities and their CIOs. Implementing intelligent water solutions and enabling remote operations open the door to cyber risks. It is imperative for water utilities to perform a thorough assessment of their systems and assets to understand their vulnerabilities, and then develop a robust plan to ensure cybersecurity throughout their digital implementation efforts.

Protecting assets requires a holistic and in-depth security approach that addresses internal and external security threats. When it comes to industrial control systems, it is paramount to minimize exposure. A well-defined separation of the operations environment, the enterprise network and the cloud enables utilities to employ broader protections on each part of the network. For more, see the Cybersecurity for Water Utilities white paper by Cisco and Jacobs.

How can utilities monitor and manage the health of the entire water cycle?

It’s important to monitor all forms of water in the water cycle to have a true view into the health of our environment. There’s truly one water in our ecosystem, be it surface water, drinking water, wastewater, water in wetland areas, ground water, etc. They’re all part of the water cycle and their health contributes to our health. Digital technologies make this enormous task much easier and more accurate. Automating, collecting real-time information and applying artificial intelligence give us much more visibility into the health of the entire water cycle.

What advice would you give government leaders as they develop roadmaps to digitize their water infrastructure?

The important thing is to get started, no matter how small, and to build from there. Utilities can identify their challenges and the goals they would like to achieve, and then build small pilots for these specific use cases and scale from there. We help utilities find sources of funding to accelerate adoption of smart water and other intelligent technologies to set the stage for future scaling of these solutions globally.

Download the full Q&A as a PDF.

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