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Before the Flood: How Technology Is Helping Build Water Resilience Around the Globe

Water Resilience Veolia: Water utilities need to embrace digital to better manage infrastructure when disaster strikes.

  • As the clean-up continues from summer 2021’s devastating deluges in Germany, Belgium, and China, it’s more important than ever for water utilities to continue fortifying their systems against future tragedies.
  • When “once in a lifetime” weather events happen every few months, it’s clear that traditional risk-management techniques aren’t enough.
  • Water utilities need to embrace digital, both to better manage current infrastructure when disaster strikes and to create more resilient plants in the future.

The flash floods in China, Germany, and Belgium took a horrific toll this summer. With recovery operations still underway, talk has naturally turned to the future. How can municipalities prepare for the extreme weather that climate change is triggering with alarming regularity?

Lamia Messari-Becker, a civil-engineering professor at Germany’s University of Siegen, told Deutsche Welle in July 2021 that vague discussions about adapting to potential climate impacts aren’t enough anymore: “Now is the time for engineers. We need real ideas and real solutions.”

BIM and cloud technology are helping improve the management of municipal water infrastructure from Brazil to Bordeaux.
BIM and cloud technology are helping improve the management of municipal water infrastructure from Brazil to Bordeaux.

Fortunately, forward-thinking engineering and construction firms around the world are already on the case. By using digital water-management strategies, they’re improving utility operations to ensure greater water resilience and sustainability.

A combination of building information modeling (BIM) and cloud technology is helping overhaul aging plants and improve the management of municipal water infrastructure from Brazil to Bordeaux. Existing resources are being optimized, and new facilities are being constructed with extreme weather and strengthened wastewater measures in mind.

A Steady Stream of Data

At Veolia Water Technologies—a division of global water, waste, and energy management giant Veolia—the company’s developers are working on new ways to prepare cities for the inevitable. They’re applying digital and IoT technologies and predictive analytics to build water-resilience management techniques such as flood modeling, sustainable drainage design, clean water distribution, and resource optimization.

Although replacing water plants, tanks, reservoirs, and pipes takes years—even decades—Veolia’s digital solutions are helping utilities improve risk management for the infrastructure they have now, even as they plan the water networks of the future.

Veolia’s solutions are helping utilities improve risk management now, rather than waiting years to replace their current infrastructure. Courtesy of Veolia Water Technologies.

“When we talk about flooding in big cities, it’s usually an issue with the volume capacity of the network,” says Elise Le Vaillant, strategic deployment director at Veolia Water Technologies. “At some point in a sustained heavy rainfall, the network just won’t accept any more. Along with flooding, rainwater can mix with untreated sewage and spill into the street, spreading bacteria and risking disease and infection.

“I was in Copenhagen [Denmark] during the flooding there a few years ago,” she continues. “And some people were saying, ‘We just need bigger pipes to send excess water outside the city.’ But then others were saying that this was a once-in-a-century event, so it didn’t merit a huge system overhaul.”

That’s a debate that needs to play out in many cities, she says, but in the meantime, things can be done to make existing infrastructure more resilient to floods, as well as more sustainable.

“With our solutions, we can, for example, use weather-forecast data to anticipate where heavy rainfall will be concentrated,” Le Vaillant says. “Sensors in the network can tell us if the tanks in those areas are already full or likely to overflow. The utility company can use that information and take preventative steps ahead of any potential flooding.”

Water Resilience: Can bigger pipes help send excess water outside cities? Perhaps. But only if infrastructure becomes more resilient first.
Can bigger pipes help send excess water outside cities? Perhaps. But only if infrastructure becomes more resilient first. Courtesy of Veolia Water Technologies.

Building Future-Proof Water Networks

Veolia Water Technologies develops its own solutions for water management. According to Veolia CAD Tools and BIM Manager Sifdin Barkaoui, the company uses the most performant BIM technologies to produce and manage 3D models, relying primarily on Autodesk solutions, including BIM 360, Revit, AutoCAD Plant 3D, Navisworks, Recap, and Inventor.

He points to a large project in the Paris region where Revit and BIM 360 were used as the primary collaboration platforms during construction. At the end of the project, the client wanted a digital twin, so Veolia built an openBIM data structure that enabled the twin’s creation and seamless handover to the client after construction.

The model will be used to improve maintenance operations, increase the safety of plant engineers, and minimize operational risks that could impact the plant’s performance.

“It’s a huge improvement over the 2D paper formats you still see used in some old plants,” Barkaoui says. “For instance, BIM allows you to predict the impact of the shutdown of a pipeline in a few clicks by highlighting the whole network in 3D, which greatly facilitates decision-making.”

Veolia Water Technologies uses BIM to predict things such as the impacts of a water-pipeline shutdown. Courtesy of Veolia Water Technologies.

Using BIM to Improve Plant Water Resilience

Veolia is also using BIM to help utilities plan for the future and design new drinking-water-production and wastewater-treatment plants that can withstand and adapt as weather patterns shift.

“BIM gives us better control over project management and project data,” Barkaoui says. “We use it to inform design, select materials, and manage assembly and construction work, all the way to final acceptance by the client.”

Once a project is completed, Veolia gathers the accumulated construction, technical, geometric, and design data from the new plant to create a digital twin. That 3D twin can then be used to optimize day-to-day operations in response to current conditions and improve risk management.

Veolia also uses BIM in its water infrastructure refurbishment and rehabilitation projects; 3D scanning technologies survey the existing structure and pinpoint exactly where improvements need to be made.

Water resilience: Flooding and potential contamination of drinking water systems are just two of the threats facing Europe’s water utilities
Flooding and potential contamination of drinking-water systems are just two of the threats facing Europe’s water utilities.

Maximizing the Resilience of Current Infrastructure

Italy and other Mediterranean countries have to prepare for water stress as higher temperatures make rainfall less predictable. Veolia’s Hubgrade plant-management solution maximizes the amount of treated water for irrigation, with 60%–70% fully reused for agricultural purposes. That’s the highest percentage in Europe.

The software is helping Milan’s Nosedo Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP)—the city’s largest—optimize daily process performance in real time. It’s keeping tank capacity in reserve should extreme weather strike and increasing the amount of reclaimed water available for agriculture. This is also reducing Nosedo’s environmental footprint, enabling it to operate with less energy while optimizing chemical consumption to achieve water-quality standards.

“You don’t buy a wastewater treatment plant the way you buy a dishwasher or mobile phone,” Le Vaillant says. “It takes time and extensive planning, but things are accelerating. The amount of data and intelligence we can contribute thanks to technologies like BIM is helping us answer some of the sustainability challenges utility companies are facing right now.”

Water resilience: VWT is also using BIM to help utilities plan for the future.
Veolia Water Technologies is using BIM to help utilities improve future water resilience through better control of project management and project data.

Water, Water Everywhere

When the pandemic landed, the one bit of public-health advice everyone agreed on was the importance of washing one’s hands. That simple but effective technique also served as a stark reminder about how vital water is to public health and a well-functioning society.

Flooding and potential contamination of drinking-water systems are just two of the threats facing Europe’s water utilities. In times of extreme weather and water stress, the tools used to manage water infrastructure must be up to the task.

Building resilience and adaptability into the systems that collect, treat, store, and distribute water must be addressed now. The effort is forecast to cost $1.9 trillion by 2030. One thing is certain, digital will play a crucial role.

About the Author

Mark de Wolf is a freelance writer specializing in technology stories. Based in Zürich, he’s an expat Canuck and graduate of the Ryerson University School of Journalism. Reach him online at markdewolf.com

Profile Photo of Mark de Wolf