Urban Agenda | How new tech is helping plug leaks and reshaping water management - Hindustan Times
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Urban Agenda | How new tech is helping plug leaks and reshaping water management

Apr 22, 2024 08:52 PM IST

With water scarcity gripping Indian cities, recent advancements are revolutionising leak detection. Startups are leading the charge in reducing water wastage

Every summer, water shortages across Indian cities are a common experience and the situation is predicted to worsen with the rise in urban population rand monsoons getting perceptibly erratic. Recently, a woman was reportedly killed in a scuffle over filling water from a tap in Delhi’s Farsh Bazar area. Bengaluru also made headlines recently due to severe water scarcity in parts of the city.

Thane, India - May 09, 2023: Water being wasted due to a water pipeline valve leakage, at Panchpakhadi, near TMC Office, in Thane, India, on Tuesday, May 09, 2023. (Praful Gangurde/HT Photo) (HT PHOTO)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Thane, India - May 09, 2023: Water being wasted due to a water pipeline valve leakage, at Panchpakhadi, near TMC Office, in Thane, India, on Tuesday, May 09, 2023. (Praful Gangurde/HT Photo) (HT PHOTO)(HT_PRINT)

While water scarcity is a known aspect of Indian urban spaces, Indian cities continue to lose a significant amount of water due to leakages, which makes the situation worse.

These leakages are often detected only when the water starts to surface on roads or other public areas. However, in many instances, the leaked water seeps into the ground and goes undetected. The situation had remained the same for some time now with an estimate of as much as half of the water pumped by a government utility going to waste in some cities.

But in recent years, new-age technological solutions are helping cities detect these leaks, reducing the wastage of precious fresh water and saving energy spent on distribution.

SmartTerra, a Bengaluru-based software company that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning for detecting water leaks, is currently deployed in Pune and Coimbatore following successful pilots. “We point out where pipes are leaky or which metre is likely to be faulty. Based on our inputs, the operator plugs the leaks,” said Gokul Krishna Govindu, CEO, SmartTerra.

“Our solution relies on creating a digital twin of the area's entire water supply infrastructure. By studying the data of flow meters, pressure sensors and individual water meters of customers, our own proprietary AI and ML algorithms identify the leaks,” Govindu said.

One pilot was done in Pune’s Kedareswar, a neighbourhood with 1,200 water connections catering to around 10,000 persons.

Before the pilot was tested, the neighbourhood lost 52% of the water being transported through a piped network 15 km in length, which meant that only 48% of the water supplied reached the households.

“We could spot 19 different spots of losses and within two months all these leaks were fixed. In this exercise, 11 invisible leaks were found and 69 customers were found to be unmetred. We almost halved the percentage of losses after the leaks were plugged in two months, this meant savings of 438 KLD (kilo litres in a day)," Govindu said.

The leaks were identified by SmartTerra by analysing the data from the individual water metres and pressure sensors.

Solinas Integrity, an IIT Madras-incubated startup, aims to solve the same problem by relying on a different principle. While SmartTerra relies entirely on the data generated by the metres and sensors across the water supply network, Solinas uses miniature robotic cameras that can crawl inside the pipelines to detect irregularities in the flow of water or contamination.

In August 2023, the robotic solution was deployed in Chennai to identify leaks in the Valsaravakkam area of Chennai. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board was planning to replace the faulty pipes and the robotic solution helped them identify the leaks and dents without the need for unnecessary digging saving money and reducing inconvenience to the public.

“Contamination and poor condition of these pipelines have been a challenge. Through our crawler robots, we aim to eliminate the manual digging of roads to assess the condition of pipelines using inline inspection,” said Divanshu Kumar, co-founder and CEO of the company. He added that this solution will play a key role in reducing costs of operation and maintenance. Kumar also said that Solinas Integrity is also working to create a system to predict these leakages.

Aumsat is another company that is working in this space and uses satellite imagery and software to detect leaks. Working with the Udaipur Smart City in the first half of 2023, in a pilot project, the company detected leaks across 50km of water pipeline network with an accuracy of 79%, through which 4.67 KLD of water was saved.

Riddish Soni, co-founder and CEO of the company, has also worked on the Chandrayan missions with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). “In Chandrayan missions, I was tasked with detecting water on the moon. Following the same principle, we used imagery from a satellite launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency which can provide information about features 10 metres below the ground. We had a joint venture with them and developed an algorithm to separate the subsurface water signals,” he said.

HT independently confirmed the involvement of these companies in these cities after speaking with respective government officials who refused to comment citing the model code of conduct in place with the Lok Sabha elections.

Incidentally, all these companies had participated in the India Water Pitch-Pilot-Scale Start-Up Challenge hosted by the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) in March 2022 as part of Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT 2.0).

SmartTerra and Solinas were the winners and the finalists, respectively, at the Ashirvad Water Challenge held in September 2023. Meanwhile, Aumsat recently was empanelled by the ministry of Jal Shakti for the National Jal Jeevan Mission for smart water management in rural areas.

Need for investment and innovation

Other than these leaks, there are also instances of unplanned or unbilled usage of water by residents who do not have a formal water connection. All these losses are termed non-revenue losses for the water distribution agency.

Globally, non-revenue water (NRW) rates of around 10% to 15% of total water supply are considered acceptable and the benchmarks in developed countries. MoHUA’s flagship AMRUT 2.0 scheme has set a target of 20 percent of NRW as a reform for water conservation. A 2022 study titled "Water Security in South Asian Cities: A Review of Challenges and Opportunities" found the average non-revenue water among Indian urban water utilities in ten cities to be at 44%.

Kanishka Chatterjee, director and head, the Nudge Prize at The Nudge Institute, said, “India’s not water deficient, only inefficient. In unlocking this inefficiency, advanced tech is pivotal for revolutionising water management for our collective future.”

He said cutting-edge advancements in non-revenue water and infrastructure sustainability offer an amazing opportunity to overcome current challenges and establish a cohesive, streamlined water infrastructure. “However, achieving this transformation demands cooperation from various players, including government bodies, industries, and innovators. It’ll be impossible to achieve this collaboration without adequate risk capital, a critical mass of testing grounds, and a long-term vision to create an infrastructure that doesn’t waste a single drop,” he said.

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