Leveraging Technology to Tackle Water Issues in the Context of Climate Change

Published On: November 2021Categories: 2021 Magazine, Canadian Science Policy Magazine, Grand Challenges
Headshot of a brown woman with the Title: Leveraging Technology to Tackle Water Issues in the Context of Climate Change


Naysan Saran

CANN Forecast

Co-founder and CEO

Earlier this year, Hurricane Ida stunned the U.S. East Coast with record-shattering rainfall, drowning more than forty people in their cars and homes, and leaving more than one million without power. Two months ago, deadly heatwaves scorched Western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, killing hundreds of people due to heat-related illness and baking crops in their fields. As our post-pandemic world is adjusting to the “new normal,” climate scientists warn us that these events are just a glimpse of the other “new normal” that lies ahead if the status quo is maintained.

Chain Reaction

That being said, an external observer could still wonder — as almost a fifth of adults do in North America [1]: Is it climate change or is it rough weather? What we know for a fact is that the global temperature has risen by about 0.7°C since the 1960s, and that warmer air absorbs more moisture from oceans, lakes and plants than cooler air does. As a result, when this warmer, wetter air eventually cools down, the extra moisture it carries condenses and falls as rain — or snow — in storms that are greater in intensity than they would have been in a cooler climate. These heavier downpours lead to more frequent floods, and increase surface runoff — water flowing over the ground instead of infiltrating into the underlying soil. But it does not stop there: surface runoff allows nutrients from fertilizers to enter lakes and streams, exacerbating harmful algae blooms. In turn, these algae blooms release toxins that contaminate drinking water, continuing this chain reaction. [2] 

In Canada, the average temperature has actually warmed by more than 1.3°C since 1948, which is about twice the global average rate of warming. [3] However, because of the complexity of the factors involved, the consequences of this warming are expected to vary across the country. According to the Council of Canadian Academies [4], “increases in precipitation are projected for the majority of the country, with the exception of parts of southern Canada, where a decline in precipitation in summer and fall is projected.” [5] Southern and Central Interior Canada are also expected to experience stronger heatwaves during summer. As the Council of Canadian Academies also notes, “a 1-in-20 year extreme hot day is projected to become about a 1-in-5 year event over most of Canada by mid-century.” [6] It may therefore come as a surprise that, in the context of the rising impact of climate change, our country needs to prepare both for water quality and water scarcity issues, despite having 7 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water.

Five Hundred Years in a Blink of an Eye

Fortunately, another upward trend makes it possible to turn the challenge posed by climate change into an opportunity for innovation: the exponential increase in computing power and data. 

Since the 1960s, the amount of computing power a dollar can buy has been growing by a factor of ten roughly every five years. [7] For example, a program that would have required five hundred years to run in 1960 would need about 0.15 seconds to complete in 2021 — about the duration of a blink of an eye. In addition, accurate data has become increasingly available to businesses, governments, and utilities through the installation of IoT devices: physical objects embedded with sensors, capable of exchanging data over the Internet. According to a study from Juniper Research, the global number of industrial IoT connections will reach 36.8 billion in 2025. [8] 

Innovation in the Water Sector



When a sufficient amount of environmental data can be analyzed quickly, there is fertile ground for artificial intelligence algorithms to be developed. In turn, these algorithms make it possible to bring to light relationships which, until then, had remained obscured in the data, as well as to help utilities make decisions to optimize water management. In fact, a growing number of private and public organizations are already working on this issue.

Since 2017, CANN Forecast has used machine learning to help municipalities better manage their water resources. Our first solution, InteliSwim, was born out of a collaboration with the Wastewater department of the City of Montreal. Indeed, in cities with combined sewer systems, untreated sewage is discharged into the environment during heavy storms, which is a major water pollution concern. InteliSwim uses data regarding phenomena such as precipitation, sewer overflows, and streamflow to estimate water quality in rivers up to 72 hours in advance. Two years later, we teamed up with nine Canadian communities to develop InteliPipes — an AI-based model that identifies at-risk pipes before they break. 

Using technology to preserve water more efficiently is a key strategy to mitigate the effects of increasingly frequent dry spells, considering that drinking water losses already average 13 percent in Canada [9] and 16 percent in the United States. [10] This situation is exacerbated by the fact that water infrastructure is aging, as well as by the domino effect of climate change. In 2010, for example, severe droughts in the Midwestern United States caused the ground to shrink, which in turn increased the occurrence of water main breaks. [11]

In this context, California State University partnered with the City of Sacramento to reduce water usage after the government mandated a 25 percent reduction in consumption across the state. [12] Using a leak-detection algorithm on data collected by more than 85,000 smart water meters, they achieved a 50 percent decrease in the likelihood of a leak for households that participated in the program.

Designing for People

If technological tools to adapt to climate change are becoming more and more numerous around the world, we should not forget that for these innovations to stick, they must be directed in the service of people. As the researchers from California State University comment: “[S]mart meters by themselves do not produce changes in consumption patterns,” but, rather, there is a “critical need to engage customers” [13] throughout the process. Another mistake to avoid is to believe that all effective solutions should be “smart.” By implementing blue-green infrastructure, for instance — such as green roofs and rain gardens — municipalities can reduce the risk of flooding while simultaneously improving the urban landscape for their citizens.

1- Kate Whiting, “3 charts that show how attitudes to climate science vary around the world,” World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/climate-science-global-warming-most-sceptics-country

2-  For a more detailed overview of the process: “How Climate Change Impacts Our Water”, by Sarah Fecht, Columbia Climate School  https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/09/23/climate-change-impacts-water

3- “Overview of Climate Change in Canada,” Government of Canada,, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/changements-climatiques/impacts-adaptation/overview-climate-change-canada/10321

4- Council of Canadian Academies. Canada’s Top Climate Change Risks: The Expert Panel on Climate Change Risks and Adaptation Potential, [Ottawa, ON: 2019].

5- Ibid.

6- Ibid.

7-  Luke Muehlhauser and Lila Rieber, Exponential and non-exponential trends in information technology, 2014, December 5, https://intelligence.org/2014/05/12/exponential-and-non-exponential/

8-  “Industrial IoT Connections to Reach 37 Billion Globally by 2025, as ‘Smart Factory’ Concept Realised,” Juniper Research, November 2, 2020, https://www.juniperresearch.com/press/industrial-iot-iiot-connections-smart-factories

9-  Grand River Municipal Water Demand Management, Grand River Watershed: Water Management Plan, https://www.grandriver.ca/en/our-watershed/resources/Documents/Water_Supplies_Primer7.pdf

10-  United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Water Audits and Water Loss Control for Public Water Systems, 2013, https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f13002.pdf

11-  Mark W. LeChevallier, “The impact of climate change on water infrastructure,” Journal – American Water Works Association,  106, no. 4 [2014]

12 –  Wesley P. Schultz et al. ”Smart Water Meters and Data Analytics Decrease Wasted Water Due to Leaks,” Journal – American Water Works Association 110, no. 11 [2018]

13 – Ibid.