top of page
  • Writer's pictureWill Sarni

Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water

Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Series

Lead Authors: Will Sarni, Callie Stinson, Alex Mung and Briana Garcia.

Other Contributors: Scott Bryan and Jahda Swanborough

Click Here to Read the Entire White Paper

Water challenges are complex and interrelated, which is why water is often framed as a “wicked problem”. In general, this refers to:

“a complex problem for which there is no simple method or solution, there is no single answer and every attempt can matter, because it affects the things people depend upon. Wicked problems are often socially complex, and they have to deal with changing behaviours and outcomes that are unforeseen.”

For seven consecutive years, water issues have ranked among the top five global risk factors in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.3 In 2018, of those global risks perceived to have both the highest likelihood to manifest and the highest impact on the world in the next decade, all but one can be linked to water. Over this period of time, while other risks have emerged and disappeared – including the financial crisis and chronic diseases – water has remained. While the challenges are well known, and progress has been made, it is sobering to see that finally solving the water challenge continues to elude us.

“Business-as-usual” approaches will not be able to address the risks presented by water insecurity, nor will these approaches be enough to sustain the world’s water needs for much longer. However, technical advancements and new capabilities emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution could fundamentally disrupt the status quo and spark new ways of tackling the global water challenge. This section outlines five of the most pressing water-related

challenges where new solutions are needed.

Obtaining a complete, current and accessible picture of water supply and demand

At the heart of water resource management are decisions about how best to allocate a finite resource across multiple competing users with increasing demand. With a projected40% gap by 2030 between global water supply and demand under business-as-usual practices (e.g. public policy and technology), competition for already scarce water resources will intensify, leading to difficult and painful allocation choices affecting the public sector, businesses, civil society and ecosystems.4 Balancing these trade-offs requires an understanding of the quality of the water, how much water can be sustainably used, and an accurate picture of current and projected water demand from human as well as economic use (water used for agriculture, energy generation and industrial use). Unfortunately, issues of data access and quality prevent leaders at every level of society from comparing priorities for water, evaluating potential solutions and making informed decisions that balance economic, social and environmental interests. A related challenge is that where data does exist, it is often scattered

across multiple government departments and stakeholders, and is also not readily compatible (or interoperable) with other data sources. From rural communities to multinational

corporations to city planners and national governments, decision-makers struggle with the confines of isolated and fragmented information.

The potential impact of technology

The Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies have the potential to assemble more complete, current and accessible information on water supply and demand. Satellite imagery and other earth observation tools are delivering profound new insights on water supply in parts of the world where conventional ground-based methods to measure water supply are not feasible or practical. As an example, in 2021 the Surface Water Ocean Topography

mission (SWOT) – a joint satellite mission between NASA and France – will use radar technology to provide the first global survey of Earth’s water and measure how bodies of water change over time. According to NASA, the satellite will survey at least 90% of the Earth, studying lakes, rivers, reservoirs and oceans roughly twice every 21 days.

Another effort, Digital Earth Africa, is working to employ emerging technologies such as cloud computing, advanced satellite imagery and advanced machine learning to deliver

6 Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Water a unique continental-scale platform to democratize capacity to process and analyse satellite data.

Click Here to Read the Entire White Paper


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page