Will Cape Town be the first city to run out of water?

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There’s water all around Cape Town, South Africa, but little of it is drinkable

Cape Town, home to Table Mountain, African penguins, sunshine and sea, is a world-renowned tourist destination. But it could also become famous for being the first major city in the world to run out of water.

Most recent projections suggest that its water could run out as early as March. The crisis has been caused by three years of very low rainfall, coupled with increasing consumption by a growing population.

The local government is racing to address the situation, with desalination plants to make sea water drinkable, groundwater collection projects, and water recycling programmes.

  • Graphene sieve makes seawater drinkable

Meanwhile Cape Town’s four million residents are being urged to conserve water and use no more than 87 litres (19 gallons) a day. Car washing and filling up swimming pools has been banned. And the visiting Indian cricket team were told to limit their post-match showers to two minutes.

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South Africa’s Western Cape region is suffering its worst water shortage in more than a hundred years

Such water-related problems are not confined to Cape Town, of course.

Nearly 850 million people globally lack access to safe drinking water, says the World Health Organization, and droughts are increasing.

So it seems incredible that we still waste so much of this essential natural resource. In developing and emerging countries, up to 80% of water is lost through leakages, according to German environmental consultancy GIZ. Even in some areas of the US, up to 50% of water trickles away due to ageing infrastructure.

A growing number of technology companies are focusing their work on water management – applying “smart” solutions to water challenges.

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For example, French company CityTaps is on a mission to streamline water access in urban homes with its smart water meters linked to an internet-based management system.

The company is first targeting poor homes in urban areas and its system, CTSuite, is currently being trialled in Niger.

Users buy “water credits” via their mobile phones and a smart meter dispenses only as much water as has been paid for. Users receive alerts when their credit balance gets low, and if they don’t top up the account, the meter automatically switches off the flow.

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The CityTaps smart water meter is fairly easy to install

The utility can track water usage remotely in near real-time via the internet. A sudden spike in water outflow and a change in pressure, measured by “internet of things” sensors, can then help identify leaks across the network.

Water companies are also using drones and satellites to help spot leaks, and in some circumstances even divining rods – despite scientific doubts, some firms say they do work.

“The internet of things offers new avenues for technological innovation in the water field, mostly by providing real-time data that – we hope – can be used to help utilities become ever more efficient and high-performing,” says Gregoire Landel, chief executive of CityTaps.

Better water management also helps save on the electricity and chemicals required to produce drinkable water.

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Families in Niger now have access to metered water they pay for via mobile phone

Meanwhile, other companies are using technology to harvest water from new sources.

US-based WaterSeer, for example, is developing a device capable of collecting water from the air.

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