European Water Gets Smart


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Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency is launching a nationwide “smart water” program to monitor one of the world’s most important resources. Powered by IBM, the program will use a network of smart sensors, wireless transmitters, and analytic software to continuously monitor and manage water quality along the country’s coastline and in swimmable lakes and rivers.

It’s all part of the European Union’s Bathing Water Directive, which on its face may seem like a simple move to preserve beaches for tourists, but is actually a huge first step in the world’s next big climate-change-related resource battle.

The directive — part of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, which calls for the protection of all water sources — mandates that the water quality in “bathing areas,” that is beaches, lakes, and rivers where people swim, be not only constantly monitored but also managed.

These things were being monitored before, but, much in the same way as it is in other countries that monitor such things, that monitoring was traditionally conducted by teams of scientists who would go to the water source, take samples, analyze it and eventually produce water quality reports.

Using IBM’s technology, the Irish EPA is able to continuously monitor and, more importantly, quickly respond to changes in tides, bacteria counts and weather throughout the country.

“Everything from where rain falls to the chemical makeup of the oceans is in flux, and it continues to change in real time,” explains Sharon Nunes, vice president of Big Green Innovations at IBM. “By providing near-real-time access to water conditions, we’re enabling environmental agencies and citizens alike to make smarter decisions.”

The program, announced this week, is using wireless sensors that constantly monitor water quality and send data back to regional offices, where computer software can analyze the data and even automate responses to certain bits of information.

In addition to helping local water authorities and environmental protection offices better understand and protect local swimming areas, the program also incorporates a public web portal called Splash, where information about water quality, tides, and weather is updated regularly. With support from An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, Splash is currently live in Ireland, but according to IBM there are plans for global expansion.

IBM is also beginning to work on a Smarter Water project in Malta, where the company’s technology is being used to identify water leaks and electricity losses in the grid — important information given that Malta depends entirely on foreign oil both to run its electrical grid and to power the desalination plants it uses to provide fresh water to residents.

As part of the project 250,000 interactive meters will monitor electricity usage in real time, set variable rates, and reward customers who consume less energy and water.

It’s all part of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, through which the company is combining sensors, wireless transmitters, software and servers to help monitor and improve everything from the electricity grid to public transportation to water supplies.

The EU launched another water monitoring system this week: a satellite that will measure soil moisture and ocean salinity throughout the continent. The Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite is the first of its kind in space. A second salinity satellite, the US/Argentinian mission Aquarius, is expected to launch next fall. Salinity data from the two satellites will be used to help determine the role of the ocean in the global water cycle, forecast weather and floods, better manage water resources, and understand long-term climate change.

Both announcements are good signs that the world is finally ready to deal with water in the way it has dealt with energy.

Potable water is a finite resource with no known alternatives, and thanks to mismanaged use and pollution, we are running out of it. According to the most recent report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the fresh water supply is increasingly at risk of contamination by pollution, water-borne disease and shifting rain patterns caused by global warming. The report indicates that 40 percent of the world’s population could suffer water shortages by 2050.


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