How to manage precious groundwater using IoT
For World Water Day, read about groundwater & why IoT water management is important. See why IoT is a powerful tool to help manage groundwater effectively.
World Water Day in 2022 is dedicated to raising public awareness of groundwater and the critical impact it has on all our lives.
Groundwater is the unseen resource under our feet, providing almost all the accessible fresh water on earth.
In this article, we’ll look at why groundwater and IoT water management is so important, and how Internet of Things (IoT) technologies can be a powerful approach to help manage groundwater in an effective and sustainable way.
What has groundwater done for us?
It’s easy to assume that rivers and lakes provide all our available freshwater, while in fact, they only contribute 0.2% of the total. Discounting the 70% of the world’s water locked up in snow mass and polar ice caps, most of the existing freshwater is below our feet. While some rainfall runs off into rivers or is used by plants, the vast majority gets absorbed like a sponge by the earth and is held as groundwater.
Groundwater is pivotal to our environments and economies, storing water to sustain watercourses, wetlands & wildlife when rainfall is sparse, and providing virtually all the water for agriculture and industry. The earth is an excellent environment for maintaining water quality and accordingly groundwater requires much less treatment for human consumption than water taken from alternative sources.
Overall, 30% of drinking water is derived from groundwater sources. This proportion varies markedly depending to an extent on the geology of the area. In the UK for example, groundwater accounts for 5% of drinking water in Wales and Scotland and up to 100% in the chalk downlands areas of southern England.
Groundwater could also be the basis for large scale, low-carbon heating solutions, which would help mitigate the effects of climate change.
What can go wrong?
Groundwater can suffer from three main problems: too little, too much, and adverse changes in quality.
A lack of groundwater is caused by the abstraction of more water from the ground than is replaced by rainfall. With too little groundwater, it becomes increasingly expensive to extract diminishing quantities of water from the ground. In addition, there is less ability for the groundwater to replenish natural watercourses during periods of drought, leading to negative impacts on ecosystems and wildlife. The UK Government is reforming its policy over the next five years, with a view to making water abstraction more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Too much ground water brings significant risks of flooding, as the natural level of water in the ground rises. This is particularly problematic in areas where construction has taken place on flood plains, especially because changes in groundwater level change slowly. London is a clear example of this where long term, widespread abstraction of groundwater in the 19th century lowered groundwater levels and constructions were subsequently created on the artificially dry land. With reductions in groundwater abstraction, levels have risen and flooding issues now affect many buildings with deep foundations and tunnel systems such as the London tube.
While relatively clean, groundwater is subject to contaminants that can find their way into the ground. Contaminants may be natural, but more often they are the result of human activity from industry and agriculture. Quality can vary over time where isolated pockets of subsurface contaminants mix with the groundwater as its level rises.
The role of technology
Owing to humanity’s dependence on groundwater, it is imperative to ensure we understand and manage it competently. This is where IoT technologies can help. Sensor technology to measure physical parameters is mature, and huge amounts of data and knowledge have been acquired from dedicated monitoring programs using these sensors. However, many of these programs have relied on highly onerous manual measurements across large geographical areas, which can potentially limit the insights from groundwater monitoring. Leveraging the existing sensor technology, modern IoT platforms can supercharge sub-surface data acquisition, solving the challenges of providing an “always on” monitoring capability.
Meeting the challenge
A rich variety of sensors may be required for a monitoring solution, some of which may be located deep underground, far away from terrestrial mobile reception and may be required to operate maintenance free for years at a time. This creates a large set of sensors which may require a complex range of technical methods for communication. Modern IoT platforms can address this sensor management challenge, accommodating diverse connectivity requirements and bi-directional control of potentially millions of sensors on a single application.
For virtually all sub-surface projects, the acquisition of data is simply a vehicle to obtain insight. Accordingly, modern IoT platforms not only enable the acquisition of data from millions of physical sensors, but they also provide the means to store vast quantities of data and make it readily amenable to analysis. This analysis may create enhanced IoT analytics that can be deployed for the purposes of real-time or predictive monitoring to help mitigate the impact of flooding or pollution.
By incorporating IoT digital twin functionality, researchers can create a real-time virtual representation of the groundwater reserve. This can drive the development or validation of new scientific models to understand how other factors such as land use and rainfall affect groundwater, leading to improved evidence-based approaches to management policy.
Groundwater is critical to sustaining life, and the environment. Developing our understanding of it is key to its management. A large body of knowledge already exists but modern IoT focused technologies provide a powerful method to help manage this precious resource in an increasingly effective and sustainable way.
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