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Smarter Water Management

Whether too much or not enough, the world needs a smarter way to think about water

One in eight people lack access to safe water supplies

That's 884 million people. The planet is thirsty. Not just for a drop to drink, but for information about how we can be smarter about water in the first place.

The issue is threefold: quantity, quality and energy. As for quantity, the total amount of water on the planet isn’t changing. But this is where quality comes into play. The nature of the water we do have is changing—from where rain falls to the chemical makeup of the oceans is in flux. And these changes are forcing us to ask some very difficult questions about how and where we live and do business.

Smarter Cities Sustainability Project

Smarter Cities Sustainability Project
A cloud-based, meter-driven portal helps residents of Dubuque, Iowa, conserve resources and save money with better utility-usage information.


That invites the issue of energy. We use water for more than drinking. In fact, global industry uses 20 percent of the world's water supply; in the US, it's 46 percent; in China, its 25 percent; India is only about 5 percent. But, according to report by the United Nations, agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater by far―about 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals go to irrigated crops.

Every business has a different relationship with water. Some use it to process raw materials and manufacture goods. Some use it to cool or clean equipment. And some use it as a central ingredient in the product they sell. Virtually every business has some sort of water imperative. And some agencies are convinced that soon all public companies will be required to disclose water efficiency in their annual reports. Consequently, most companies have begun to look more closely at their corporate water footprint and ways innovation can help pave the way to competitive differentiation. In fact, a study by the Alliance for Water Efficiency (PDF, 785KB) estimates that for every million dollars spent on water efficiency in the United States, we can not only save as much as 10 trillion gallons of water, but also create about 220,000 jobs and increase economic output by as much as $2.8 million.

Every time we interact with water, we change it, redirect it or otherwise alter its state. Though it's a worldwide entity, water is treated as a regional issue. There is no global market and very little international exchange. "Water is about quantity, quality, space and time," says Ian Cluckie, Professor of Hydrology and Water Management at the University of Bristol, in the IBM Global Innovation Outlook report on water management. "Whether you have a big problem or not depends entirely on where you live."

It takes... 10 liters of water to make one sheet of paper, 40 liters of water to make one slice of bread, 70 liters of water to make one apple, 70 liters of water per dollar of Industrial product, 91 liters of water to make one pound of plastic, 120 liters of water to make one glass of wine, 140 liters of water to make one cup of coffee, 1,300 liters of water to make one kilogram of wheat, 4,800 liters of water to make one kilogram of pork, 10,855 liters of water to make one pair of jeans, 15,500 liters of water to make one kilogram of beef, 16,600 liters of water to make one kilogram of leather.


6,5 billion drops in the bucket. The hydrologic cycle has moved water around the world for thousands of years. But man's increasing interaction with that cycle has added 
several layers of complexity and consequence. Agriculture: Heavy irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide runoff from farms pollute rivers and groundwater. Energy: Hydroelectric
dams disrupt river ecosystems. Sewage: Untreated effluence can infect water supploes, but treatment of wastewater is energy intensive and increases carbon emissions. Domestic
use: Urban demands on reservoirs and rivers redirect the natural flow of freshwater. Extraction: Removing groundwater in coastal areas reduces water pressure underground, allowing
saltwater to intrude and mix with freshwater reserves. Carbon emissions: Carbom dioxide in the atmosphere is sequestered by the oceans, raising water acidity levels. Fishing:
Overfishing can deplete critical food supplies and forever alter water ecosystems. Shipping: Boats release ballast water thousands of miles from where it was collected, introducing
potentially harmful species to new ecosystems.


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Help solve water issues with the World Community Grid.

IBM has started a new collaboration with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (US) (DC WASA) to integrate advanced analytics with asset management software from IBM and a mapping application from ESRI, an IBM Business Partner. The availability of real time, map-based information and geo-analytics will help DC WASA engineers identify potential problems before they occur.

Rivers for Tomorrow (US) is a partnership between IBM and The Nature Conservancy. IBM is providing a state-of-the-art support system for a free, online application that will provide easy access to data and computer models to help watershed managers assess how land use affects water quality.

Sun World (US), a US-based agribusiness, uses IBM analytics tools to evaluate which crops benefit most from newer drip irrigation systems and has decreased its water usage by 8.5% since 2006.

With advances in technology—sophisticated sensor networks, smart meters, deep computing and analytics—we can be smarter about how we manage our planet's water. We can monitor, measure and analyze entire water ecosystems, from rivers and reservoirs to the pumps and pipes in our homes. We can give all the people, organizations, businesses, communities and nations dependent on a continuing supply of freshwater—that is, all of us—a single, reliable, up-to-the-minute and actionable view of water use. But that's just the first drop.