What is the Geospatial Community Doing to Put Clean Water in More Places Around the World?


Written by Jeff Thurston

Water is valuable, but clean water that people can drink has greater value. Some regions have an abundance of clean water, and others have do not – a geographic factor. In other places pressure on natural ecosystems that generate water are placing great stress on ecosystems, often overwhelming them. The production of clean water is a result of the protection and stewardship of natural ecosystems, but also the result of efficient and effective management.  And, on that basis geospatial technologies have a large role to play.

Consider this – every single day more than 3.3 billion litres of treated water are lost in Britain.  That is enough to supply a city of 21 million people. The Independent  newspaper says that is about 20 per cent of that country’s water use and is happening after investing GBP 7.5 billion in infrastructure.

That would include each of Mumbai, New York, Sao Paulo, Manila, Shanghai – or about 50 cities and larger towns in Africa – or just about all the fresh water needs in Canada or Chile.

As sad as that statistic is, we can think of water in terms of a wider holistic perspective that begins with the natural environment. The Water Cycle is not some mysterious system but a realistic combination of events and natural processes that reflect the balance of the world’s water supply, which most of us have learned about during our early years – but have perhaps most likely forgotten over time.

Yet, the basic water cycle leads directly to our understanding of water supply and the development of geospatial technologies for ascertaining its process locations, size and extents, and the frequency and durations at which water phenomena take place.

Satellite imagery plays a vital role in locating and observing the changing environments where water is found. GeoEye has provided support to a wide variety of earth-system research that often includes water related understanding through it’s GeoEye Foundation Grants. Using satellite imagery provided by the company, researchers and students monitor and learn more about the water cycle and natural environmental processes impacting the current availability of water. And they also learn more about its use through land use changes, growth and development. These are connected and do not operate independent of each other.

The Australian government in addition to others has been funding research in water monitoring. The idea behind this work is to evaluate natural environments with a view to conservation and better management of water resources.  The US National Water Research Institute goes one step further, advocating ‘creating new sources of water…’ In principle, much of the current work involving climate change would reverse melting glaciers and other supplies, helping them to become generators of water. Alternatively, the establishment of new forested environments (or conservation of existing ones) that evolves from the work of REDD, also seeks to create and maintain consistent water supplies, particularly in peatlands.

The Concept and Reality of Ecosystem Services is based upon establishing economic values that are derived from ecosystems. These are not meer whims for assigning values to environments, they establish realistic appraisals of what ecosystems contribute toward the fabric of communities, nourishing the places people live and work without having to resort to more expensive alternatives – often at deteriorating accessibility. And geospatial professionals hold the key to uncovering these values through the use and application of geospatial technologies that establish a better understanding and management of the basic water cycle.

But maintaining natural ecosystems is only part of the quest. My first point when I began writing about Britain, was to establish the understanding that clean water must be delivered, much like electricity and other commodities. Without effective and efficient infrastructure we are spinning our wheels. And in that case, GBP 7.5 billion is not a small amount. This shows the sheer magnitude of the problem, but also the importance of the solution – often involving better infrastructure facility management, infrastructure network tools, monitoring technology across water networks and the development (and maintenance) of quality water supplies. Computer-aided design (CAD - storm and sanitary analysiswater solutions), geographic information systems (GIS - GIS for water resources) and various water applications all come into play here.

To manage water is to be in the field. Field technologies involving GNSS are also useful and are used to monitor atmospheric water as well as onsite water management system in utility maintenance and management.  Other technologies connected to geospatial applications include climate and meteorological systemsdata loggers and sensors and connected, standardized servers.

The geospatial community is highly connected to the production, maintenance and distribution of clean water. This does not start at the water tap, instead, it extends all the way back to the natural landscape and a wide and varied understanding of the water cycle throughout the environment. It moves forward through the treatment of water and onward to the efficient distribution of treated water. It would seem critical that all parts of the production and use water pipeline need attention and for that we can apply remote sensing, GNSS, GIS, CAD, design and sensor based technologies.

It is important that the geospatial community begin to understand the concept of ecological services. Through evaluation of natural systems for economic benefits comes the realisation that emergency response, disaster and relief (and costs) are the flipside of failing or ineffective infrastructure that does not deliver.

On this basis geospatial communities have a large role to play.



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