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The Lecturer presented about the opportunities that digitalisation introduces and the awareness among water professionals of the risks linked with digitalisation and ways to minimise the impacts.

Prof Harsha Ratnaweera

He is a professor in water technology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a Fellow of the International Water Association (IWA). He was a visiting researcher at the University of Technology Sydney. He has initiated and coordinated a global network on water education and research consisting of 75 universities from 45 countries ( The digitalisation of the water sector is one of his research areas, and he is involved in IWA’s water sector digitalisation activities.

Abstract: Many sectors are going through rapid digitalisation, and the water sector is not an exception. Although some utilities and activities in the water sector, such as like primary equipment control and hydraulic simulations of sewers, started several decades ago, we now witness an almost comprehensive digitalisation in all aspects of water utilities and services. Digitalisation provides unique and unparalleled process and management optimisation opportunities, and possibilities to process optimise. This results in benefits for human health, the environment and economic savings for utilities, with subsequent benefits for consumers as well. On the other hand, increased digitalisation also increases the vulnerability of our water utilities services in several ways. While digitalisation enables remote surveillance and control of utilities, a main benefit, it also opens a wide range of unauthorised and unwanted attention and intrusions into the system critical software. COVID-19 has probably increased this risk by hastily implementing remote control of processes at utilities where staff are not adequality trained or prepared. Nevertheless, the research communities, authorities and water organisations have engaged in efforts to increase awareness of challenges, identify risks, and propose preventing and mitigating risks as well as remedial activities.


Keywords: digitalisation, water utilities, cyber risks, cyber security, remote control.



We are living in an era of digitalisation, which influences almost all spheres of our lives and the world we live in. Many products and services which we could not even imagine 5-10 years ago have found their way into our everyday work and social lives. Digitalisation is embracing the world with such speed and coverage, and it is now unthinkable to live without it. The water sector is not an exception.

Digitalisation is not new to the water sector, as it has been presented under various definitions during the last decades. Numerical models for hydraulics were presented in the early 1930s, and the earliest pipe network digital models were introduced in 1960s and ’70s (Walski, T., et al 2017). One of the very first digital solutions for wastewater treatment plants was published 23 years ago (Olsson, G. and Newell 1999). It was the first book on the use of simulation programs for biological processes in wastewater treatment, which also had a dedicated chapter about the future of digitalisation.

Figure 1. Digitalisation creating smart networks for the water sector (Fisia italimpianti 2019)

From the off-line use of digital tools to designing and simulating transport and treatment processes in 1960s, the invention of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), the water sector also started to use digital tools online. The SCADA use in water utilities has exploded and a doubling of SCADA was observed from 1.3 billion USD in 2015 to 2.2 billion USD in 2025, growth at 5.6% (Transparency Market Research 2017). Another prediction states that the water quality sensor market will be 1.2 billion USD, reporting a growth at 7% CAGR. Figure 1 presents how broad coverage could be present in the water sector, enabling future smart cities (Fisia italimpianti 2019).

The water sector is notoriously slow to uptake innovations. While innovations may typically take 2 to 7 years to be developed and constructed, the average timeline for a project to pass from technology introduction to the final warranty stage is often 3-5 years (Dyson 2019). In many other industries, such a long implementation process will make the innovations obsolete by the time they are embraced by the end-users. Nevertheless, we see a much faster uptake of digital tools in the sector, as we have evidenced during the last five years. The water industry also was somewhat forced to increase automation due to the many restrictions COVID-19 pandemic has created to manage the serious shortages of access to qualified staff at facilities.

The International Water Association (IWA) notes that the opportunity for digital water technologies is especially promising for water professionals in emerging economies. The cost of centralised water and wastewater systems can be prohibitive, and as a result, emerging economies can develop and manage off-grid and localised water systems from scratch. Dynamic and data-driven (as opposed to mechanistic) models can help integrate and optimise smart pumps, valves, sensors and actuators; each device can “talk” to each other (Vairavamoorthy 2018).

While digitalisation represents many benefits to the water sector and its’ end-users, it also elevates the risk of stability and continuity of the services to populations, which is considered as a societal-critical service in many countries.

Materials and Methods

This paper presents a broad overview of the benefits and challenges with the digitalisation of the water sector. The information presented here are based on literature surveys, review of presentations by various scholars and the author’s own reflections.

Benefits of digitalisation

Table 1 presents an overview of various benefits of digitalisation as a value-chain. While all aspects of water can be digitally enhanced, directly giving benefits to the utilities, they also provide an added value to the utilities, end-users, authorities and other stakeholders. While there is an additional cost for digitalising the water sector, the benefits of adopting new digital technologies are much higher. According to Global Water Intelligence, the potential savings on total expenditure in the 2016-2020 period made possible by digitalisation are enormous: some $147 billion for treatment, distribution, customer management and metering of drinking water. The savings in the wastewater segment is $143 billion(GWI 2020) .

The section below highlighted some of the aspects with examples.

Table 1. Digital water value chain overview (adapted from (IWA and Xylem 2019)

Community benefits

·        Increased affordability

·        Customer experience

·        Environmental protection

Operational benefits

·        Process excellence

·        Predictive maintenance

·        Regulatory compliances

Financial benefits

·        Reduced operational expenditure

·        Increased capital efficiency

·        Increased revenue

Long-term resiliency benefits

·        Increased resilience

·        Workforce development

·        Brand and innovations

Uninterrupted and optimised service to the consumers

Digital surveillance and control provide unique opportunities to water supply and wastewater management systems enabling more optimised, even, and accurate treatment efficiencies. Process control systems based on, for example, varying inlet water quality will be more efficiently managed by operational parameters quickly responding to the inlet quality and quantity changes. Such systems may also efficiently respond to extreme conditions, enabling less interrupted services compared with manual process control.

Enabling Early Warning Systems

With the increased availability of less costly IoT devices measuring an increased number of water quality parameters, the utilities can be better prepared for rapid changes in the incoming water. Such probes may significantly contribute not only to more optimally manage the treatment operations but may also enable increased process safety, reducing threats to human health and the environment. For example, the increased precipitations due to Climate Change is increasing the water in combined sewers to unprecedented levels. The ability to predict the water volumes and flows in sewers and manage them more optimally to reduce or avoid sewer overflows is an example of an opportunity created by digitalisation.

The improved economy of water utilities

Use of chemicals for treatment processes, energy for aeration and pumping, staff cost savings by reduction of manual operation are examples. Real-time water quality measurements using IoTs have shown up to 30% savings of coagulants in wastewater treatment plants (Ratnaweera 2020). About 4% of the global energy production is consumed by the water and wastewater sector, where aeration and transport are significant factors (IEA 2017).

More efficient resource use

Water utilities, especially the water distribution and wastewater transport infrastructure, are in dire need of rehabilitation. These pipelines are often 50-150 years old, while the normal life is 50-100 years. Due to many leaking water distribution pipes and sewers, most cities are investing huge resources to rehabilitate them. The rehabilitation segments are often identified and prioritised after observing leakages as a mitigative measure, rather than identifying the potential for leakages as part of a systematic planning of preventive measures. The efficient use of IoTs enables a wider range of real-time monitoring network, giving more efficient identification of leakages and use of resources.

More accurate and affordable water quality surveillance

Water quality of treated water has been monitored for many decades, mainly for compliance reporting. Their use in process optimisation has rapidly increased during the last decades as water utilities saw the great potential for process optimisation with more frequent water quality monitoring; not only of the influent and treated water, but also between processes. However, the lack of probes for all critically important parameters and the exorbitant cost of probes and auto-analysers in the market have restricted their wider use. Digital tools are enabling surveillance and process control in innovative ways to reduce costs; the use of virtual sensors (soft sensors) where many expensive and complex parameters are monitored is a great opportunity created by digitalisation (Nair et al. 2019).


Challenges with digitalisation of the water sector

While cyber security is identified as the main challenge in the digitalisation of the water sector, there are other direct and indirect negative consequences to the industry, end-users and other stakeholders. The below section highlights some of these challenges.

Impact on the competence of the workforce

Treatment plant operators play an active role in securing that the best possible treatment quality leaves their utilities, despite changes in influent water and operational conditions. Years and decades of knowledge have made some of the leading operators the brain of process control, as they regulate based on observed experience. Increased automation of treatment facilities may reduce engagement and enthusiasm among the plant operators to think creatively by understanding the process, as they see that the plants will function without much of their inputs. The downside of this is that too much dependency in automation may lead to the inability to manage the process manually, when needed. Some plant managers have noted that this may systematically weaken operational stability, while others see it as a possibility for even more engagement among the operators who are keen to learn more.

Reduced quality assurance with a human touch

When there is no or less automation in process control, a heavier burden on process results is placed on the operators. Thus, they are more engaged in evaluating the process performance results based on their knowledge base than letting the automation system evaluate the process qualities and make decisions. These conditions may create challenging situations during the early processes of automation, while with time and experience and more careful design, the negative impacts can be reduced. Researchers and industry are investing a lot of resources to improve these products, so we anticipate that the challenges and negative impacts will be reduced in the near future.

Increased system inter-dependency leading to system collapse

Treatment plants are systems consisting of numerous unity processes and operations. Increasingly integrated and inter-dependent systems are being made to maximise optimisation and automation. This in turn increases the risk of whole or large segments collapsing during a system failure in comparison to when they are operated independently. However, smart and careful design of systems may reduce the challenges associated with system integrations.

Increased system vulnerability due to increased cyber threats

Increased automation of processes and opening of the systems for remote access turn water utilities and services into attractive targets for intruders and their malicious attempts to disrupt. Figure 2 illustrates some of the reported cyber-attacks in the water sector. The water sector is reported to be the third most targeted sector.

Figure 2. Reported cyber-attacks in the water sector (SCADAfence 2021)


Impacts from cyber-security could be many: Interfere with operations – over/under dosage, unauthorised changes to programmed instructions; reduced pressure, overflow of sewage, malfunction of unit processes, modify control systems to produce unpredictable results, block data or send false information to operators, change alarm thresholds or disable them, prevent access to account information, access to personal information (GPDR directive), ransomware are among the common results identified from cyber-attacks in the industry.



The water industry is rapidly awakening to the vulnerability of their infrastructure and services to cyber risks, and seek preventive measures. However, awareness of risks are still inadequate in most utilities.

Various governmental and international organisations have engaged in promoting awareness of cyber-threats, preventive and recovery measures. International Water Association (IWA) has a dedicated group and is continuing to produce guidelines, specialist reports and organising Digital water summits and webinars. The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) is the agency dedicated to achieving a high common level of cyber-security across Europe. Already in 2016, EU adapted the NIS Directive (Network and Information Security) as the first EU-wide cyber-security legislation, with the goal to enhance cyber-security across the EU. The United Kingdom has produced a water sector cyber-security strategy (Govt of UK 2017). American Water Works Association (AWWA) has produced a dedicated report on cyber-security risks and responsibilities in the water sector (AWWA 2019).

Strategic principles for a secure water sector against cyber threats

The strategic objectives identified by the UK in its strategic document in 2017 can be considered as relevant for all countries:

  1. Understand threats: Build on our joint work to develop our shared understanding of the cyber threats facing the water sector as they evolve.
  2. Manage risks: Develop and implement approaches to manage risks and address cyber security vulnerabilities in the water sector, now and in the future.
  3. Manage incidents: Respond effectively, with industry, to any serious cyber incidents, including those that compromise critical water infrastructure.
  4. Develop capabilities: The government and sector enhance the cyber skills and capabilities of the water sector to meet future needs.
  5. Strengthen collaboration: Strengthen collaboration between government and the water sector and within the water sector.

Managing cyber risks

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), the FBI, and the Information Technology ISAC, the WaterISAC has developed a list of 10 basic cyber-security recommendations that water and wastewater utilities can use to reduce exploitable weaknesses and defend against avoidable data breaches and cyber-attacks (AWWA 2019). These principles are acknowledged and supported by several other organisations and resource persons, thus reflecting systematic procedures and actions to increase security against cyber-threats in the water sector of all countries.

  1. Maintain an accurate inventory of control system devices and eliminate any exposure of this equipment to external networks.
  2. Implement network segmentation and apply firewalls.
  3. Use secure remote access methods.
  4. Establish role-based access controls and implement system logging.
  5. Use only strong passwords, change default passwords, and consider other access controls.
  6. Maintain awareness of vulnerabilities and implement necessary patches and updates.
  7. Develop and enforce policies on mobile devices.
  8. Implement an employee cyber-security training program.
  9. Involve executives in cyber-security.
  10. Implement measures for detecting compromises and develop a cyber-security incident response plan.


Digitalisation continues to embrace the water sector and seems to cover all aspects related to water sources, treatment and disposal. This evolution has many technical, management and social advantages that benefit all potential stakeholders. Many water utilities and municipalities are already heavily engaged in the digitalisation of their services and infrastructure, while others are entering the process.

Digitalisation is also creating additional risks to uninterrupted and safe water supply and wastewater management. Cyber threats are probably the most critical with potentially devastating impacts. Nevertheless, awareness and preparedness for cyber threats among utility owners are not adequate. Government agencies, international organisations and resource persons/centres are engaged in securing the water sector against cyber threats by increasing awareness among relevant stakeholders.


AWWA. 2019. “Cybersecurity Risk & Responsibility in the Water Sector.”

Dyson, J. 2019. “Water Industry Innovation, A Slow and Painful Process.” Water Wolrd. 2019.

Fisia italimpianti. 2019. “The Future of Water.” 2019.

Govt of UK. 2017. “Water Sector Cyber Security Strategy 2017-2021.”

GWI. 2020. “Accelerating the Digital Water Utility: The No-Nonsense Approach to Digital Transformation.” 2020.

IEA. 2017. “Water-Energy Nexus.” World Energy Outlook Special Report. 2017.

IWA and Xylem. 2019. “Digital Water.” IWA.

Nair, Abhilash M., Abaynesh Fanta, Finn Aakre Haugen, and Harsha Ratnaweera. 2019. “Implementing an Extended Kalman Filter for Estimating Nutrient Composition in a Sequential Batch MBBR Pilot Plant.” Water Science and Technology 80 (2): 317–28.

Olsson, G. and Newell, B. 1999. Wastewater Treatment Systems – Modelling, Diagnosis and Control. IWA Publishing.

Ratnaweera, H. 2020. Meeting Tomorrow’s Challenges in Particle Separation with Coagulation. ACS Symposium Series. Vol. 1348.

SCADAfence. 2021. “Securing Water and Wastewater Systems.”

Transparency Market Research. 2017. “SCADA Market.” 2017.

Vairavamoorthy, K. 2018. “The Rise of Digital Water.” Source.

Walski, T., Chase, D.V., Savic, D., Grayman, W., Beckwith, S., Koelle, E. 2017. Advanced Water Distribution Modeling and Management. Haestad Methods.


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