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As a young woman, I had an opportunity to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. The two years that I spent in teaching in Gabon, Togo, and Ghana opened my eyes to different cultures and ways of life, enriched me, and helped shape the person that I am today.

During my time in Africa, I found that I had a very personal relationship with water—one I had never before paid much attention to. The climate in parts of West Africa is tropical, and each country I served in was lush and verdant, thanks to plentiful rainfall and abundant water sources. However, as I saw firsthand in my travels, this is not the case in much of Africa, where water is scarce and rainfall all but non-existent, and where the effect of water shortages on the population is at once visible and heartbreaking.

Water is essential for life—we use it for sanitation, drinking, cooking, irrigation, energy, and production and transportation of consumer goods. Yet water supplies in many parts of the world are growing increasingly scarce due to climate change and continued population growth.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) estimates that there are currently 700 million people spanning 43 countries who suffer from water scarcity. And, by 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to be living in areas that will experience absolute water scarcity. These statistics and others are grim, prompting the World Economic Forum to release a 2015 global risk assessment that put water crises at the top of a list of serious issues with the gravest impact on the planet.

In the developing world, water scarcity is most critical in large population centers where infrastructure and supplies are inadequate to meet citizen demand. And in the developed world, climate change is causing record droughts, signaling the need for communities across the globe to think differently about the way they manage, conserve, and provide access to water.

This year, as the world pauses on World Water Day to think about our relationship to water and how we can collectively help protect and conserve this most precious resource, I want to share some thoughts on how technology can be employed to help us more closely monitor and conserve our water supplies. Goal 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is critical to the future of our planet.

Building a world-class water management system

Aqaba, the only coastal city in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is home to 130,000 people and a wide range of water storage facilities and conduits, from public wells and reservoirs to individual pipes. The local water utility, Aqaba Water Company (AW), not only manages all local water plants but oversees the local water infrastructure, including transportation, distribution, maintenance, and billing services. It’s a large job, and one that quickly tapped existing infrastructure; AW suffered from inefficiency and inferior customer service, frequently sending workers to repair leaks after too much water had been spilled.

To gain a precise, current overview of resources, AW built a cloud-based system by using Microsoft Azure and the SQL Server data engine. The result is a world-class water management system that monitors city resources. Managers and engineers can access it from anywhere, enabling them to run a more efficient and cost-effective utility that delivers premium service to citizens.

Conserving water with cloud technologies

In California, water shortages and a record drought required area agencies such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission—provider of water, power, and sewer services for 2.6 million citizens—to lower their water usage by 25 percent. The precise measurement of usage levels quickly became overwhelming, so the utility turned to Microsoft cloud technologies and embedded smart sensors to gain instant access to information.

Today, the utility can reduce the amount of overflows, move water to areas in the system where the need is greatest, and treat water so that the quality is better for drinking. And, moving operations to the cloud saved the agency the cost of servers, hardware, and software, giving their budget an unexpected boost.

As corporate sponsor for UC Davis Center for Water Energy Efficiency, we are working with Professor Frank Loge, director of the team that is using Microsoft Azure to analyze water and energy consumption. The resulting data will inform the water utilities—and, ultimately, other stakeholders in the State of California—on conservation programs and water rate structures, and help them to discover leaks or other errant usage patterns. Analysis at the nexus of water and energy provides insights into managing both systems for sustainable results, and provides consumers, engineers, and policy makers with new ways to conserve both water and energy.

Preventing flooding with Microsoft Azure

The city of Breda, in the Netherlands, also uses a combination of smart sensors and Microsoft cloud technology to monitor water flows. With two rivers and high rainfall, Breda was challenged to run pumps efficiently without a real-time picture of water levels. The city frequently used more power than necessary and wasted resources—stationing employees in areas where flooding was anticipated, only to have water levels remain stable.

By moving their system to the cloud, Breda could collect data from sensors and pumps around the city, analyze and monitor pumping levels in real time, and use this information to optimize resources, lower energy and maintenance costs, and reduce flooding. The result is a leaner and more efficient system.

Educating constituents about water conservation

In Singapore, as in many countries with large population centers, water resources are scarce. The national water agency, PUB, draws on local catchment areas, imported water, reclaimed water, and desalinated water to serve the needs of its citizens. In order to keep constituents better informed on the current state of the country’s water resources, PUB deployed MyWaters, a mobile and desktop application running on Microsoft SharePoint and hosted by Microsoft Azure.

MyWaters provides citizens with up-to-the-minute information on water levels, delivered via closed-circuit TV images and embedded sensors that monitor flood-prone areas. The app even includes a feature for citizens to send feedback and suggestions to PUB—and they can provide information on areas that may not be monitored by sensors or CCTV cameras.

The future is in the cloud

Cloud computing has emerged as a vital resource for managing many of the most challenging problems facing us today, and water conservation is at the top of the list. Cloud and big data technologies can help us ensure clean drinking water, proper reservoir levels, and sustainable water management practices. They can even play a role in educating policy makers, engineers, and citizens on the bigger picture of water usage. To learn more about cloud technologies, visit Microsoft Azure.