Across the world, clean, fresh water is an increasingly scarce resource. Climate change, growing populations and rising demand from agriculture and industry are putting supplies under strain from the Poles to the Equator.

Local initiatives can reduce consumption and water inequality but in the long-term, supply needs to match demand much more effectively. To do that, we will need a deeper understanding of the complex factors that drive user behaviour and affect supplies.

Big data is already supplying some of the answers. Projects in India, the UK and the United States point to a future of data-driven water management, which will help the world make better use of a resource that is fundamental to all life on our planet.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) recently published “Parivartana”, a study of the role of data and analytics in social transformation around the globe. As well as identifying many areas for action, the report highlights opportunities to use data to make the world a better place for all of its citizens.

Using data to reduce water stress in India

While the Indian economy remains the world’s fastest growing, the development of water infrastructure has moved at a slower pace. Research commissioned by TCS found that the demands of business and agriculture were often driving water policy.

As a result, some areas of the country are experiencing severe water stress. Villages, in particular, lose out as commercial farmers switch to water-intensive commercial crops like sugar cane. This was the case for five villages in the drought-prone Khalad Panchkroshi area near Pune in Maharashtra State, western India.

Sugar cane farming is incredibly water-intensive. Credit: Shutterstock

Water charity Gram Gaurav Pratishthan (GGP), working with local voluntary water council Pani Panchyat, set about identifying sources of local data including human population, rainfall, the area under cultivation, area forested, water sources and the area’s livestock population.

By analyzing the information, GGP was able to show local people definitively how rainfall compared to water demand in the area. As a result, villagers now feel confident to take charge of their own water deficiency problems, instead of relying on irrigation engineers or local politicians. 

Empowered by this analysis, Pani Panchayat is now trying to convince Khalad Panchkroshi to create a local farming policy to tackle the area’s water deficiency, encouraging the five villages to cooperate, rather than compete, for the overall benefit of all stakeholders. 

Data, data everywhere – but is it correct?

In the UK, Southern Water was among the first utility companies to appoint a Chief Data Officer to use all the information at its disposal to ensure it could meet demand from a fast-growing population.

The company was a leading force in establishing the DataWell, a cross-industry initiative to share data. UK water companies also need to supply quality data to the regulator – and there can be heavy fines for any breach of regulatory obligations.

Water data for social transformation

One of the founders of the DataWell initiative, Peter Jackson, says open data can benefit both the water sector and society. He says open data sets and data sharing can lead to increased transparency and trust, enabling innovation and social transformation.

“Water is a vital resource for society and public health, and safe, clean and reliable water supply is a basic requirement to stimulate economic and social development,” he says. Water firms collect huge amounts of data about customers, assets and water quality.

Jackson believes data analytics can both ensure the resilience of water supply for the future and help utilities map future demand. 

“The pressures of population growth, economic development, rising standards of living, agricultural evolution, land use, and changing weather and climate patterns can be modelled and understood better through data and analytics,” he adds.

Credit: Shutterstock

Fighting drought in the Golden State

The power of big data to help prevent water shortages has been recognized in the US state of California, which is currently experiencing a drought-free year for the first time in seven years, although the southern part of the state is still categorized as abnormally dry.

The California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC), which brings together leading businesses and environmental groups, is using big data to predict water supply and understand demand patterns. It describes the state as “the poster child for water stress”.

CWAC is working with major industries to develop “context-based water targets” using data about the local environment to set measurable goals to reduce water consumption and reduce pollution.

Wherever you look in the world, water supplies are under stress. Even in countries with high rainfall levels, growing demand threatens the sustainability of supply. But by using big data to see the bigger picture and all the factors at play, we can begin to put measures in place to ensure that we don’t run out.

This article is a summary of the work undertaken by Kalpanatai Salunke, Managing Trustee, Gram Gaurav Pratishthan; Dr. Gurudas Nulkar, Professor of Management, Symbiosis Centre for Management, and Peter Jackson Director, Group Data Sciences, Legal and General Group plc, for the Tata Consultancy Services pArIvartana report on the Role of Data and Analytics in Social Transformation. The report showcases how a diverse set of highly motivated experts including CxOs, industry leaders, economists, academicians, researchers, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists have made a positive, and sustainable impact to the community. You can read more about this work here