By Tamim Younos
Younos is founder and president, Green Water-Infrastructure Academy, Washington, D.C., and former research professor of Water Resources at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.
Late 20th and early 21st century revolutions in computerization and internet technologies affect all aspects of our lives. The impact is very dramatic on water security and water management, which significantly affects human life and ecosystems. The op-ed article “Water management in the era of information technology” printed in The Roanoke Times on Aug. 15, 2018 discussed smart technologies such as using sensors and drones combined with wireless internet technologies that can ensure the security of the nation’s water resources; transmitting fast and immediate distribution of real-time water quantity/quality information to governmental agencies and other stakeholders for speedy responses that could alleviate/mitigate natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, and artificial disasters such as chemical spills.
Other examples of smart technologies developed in the 20th century include “smart water meter” and pipeline leak detection technologies. A “smart water meter” automatically measures and transmits potable water consumption for billing purposes. Pipeline water leak is a critical issue. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE 2017) has estimated that 240,000 water main breaks occur yearly in the U.S., with 2 trillion gallons of treated and energy intensive drinking water wasted. A conventional leak detection method was to observe visible evidence of leaking, opening hydrants, and digging up pipes. An example of smart technology for leak detection uses acoustic signals (detects leak noise) which determines the condition of underground water pipes for quick leak detection and repair.
Beyond smart technology, research and technology advances in the 21st century have led us to the era of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence with important applications in water security and management. Cybersecurity refers to the preventative techniques used to protect the integrity of networks, programs and data from attack, damage, or unauthorized access. Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to creation and use of digital data, and using intelligent machines and robots.
The 9-11 terrorism act of 2001 triggered the evaluation of water infrastructure safety in the United States, among other concerns. While advances in water sector computerization provide significant advantages, the process has also exposed the water system’s vulnerabilities to hacking and terrorism, therefore making cybersecurity a top priority for the water sector. A recent American Water Works Association (AWWA) Report “Cybersecurity risk & responsibility in the water sector (AWWA 2018)” states that “Government intelligence confirms the water and wastewater sector is under a direct threat as part of a foreign government’s multi-stage intrusion campaign, and individual criminal actors and groups threaten the security of our nation’s water and wastewater systems’ operations and data.” The report states that “Attacks causing contamination, operational malfunction, and service outages could result in illness and casualties, compromise emergency response by firefighters and healthcare workers, and negatively impact transportation systems and food supply.” The AWWA report presents several examples of confirmed water sector attacks in the United States. According to the report, in one case, cybercriminals exploited antiquated computer systems to gain access to valve and flow operations, and were able to manipulate the water flow and amount of chemicals used to treat the water. In another case, attackers exploited a vulnerability to identify an unprotected computer that controlled sluice gates and other functions of a dam. To meet the cybersecurity challenge, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) was signed into law on Oct. 23, 2018. Under the AWIA, water utilities have to conduct risk and resilience assessments and revise their emergency response plans to address cybersecurity.
Application of artificial intelligence (AI) in water security and management is very promising and exciting. Robots have already found important applications, such as in water sampling and analysis, and leak detection in water networks. An important aspect of AI is the capability to create and share “digital data” using existing databases and continuously adapt to changes when new data becomes available. This AI function, digital solution, has significant application in water resource management. Using digital water data enables water managers and governmental agencies to plan efficient and sustainable water resource management systems and to build efficient and sustainable water infrastructure. Sustainable water systems will result in water and energy use efficiency, mitigate climate change impact on water and energy resources, and, in some ways, complement cybersecurity in the water sector.