How Can Nepal Manage Water Amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

  • Water from the Himalayas has the potential to create a world-class brand using blockchain technology
  • Robotics, drones and remote-control systems can be used to construct and repair the water infrastructure systems
  • Technology transfer and training of human resources has become easier, which can be helpful in many ways for agrarian developing countries like Nepal

Water and data are crucial resources of the 21st century. These two resources are going to influence upcoming global politics significantly. Nepal shares river basins with its two mighty neighbours – India and China. India has the cheapest internet in the world and good e-governance. China has already established a foundation for the 5G network while also drafting the future with 6G networks and beyond. However, such ongoing rapid technological transformations are beyond comprehension for developing countries like Nepal.

Nepal is an agricultural-based country. Its destiny depends on agriculture, and agriculture depends on water. A promising future cannot be imagined using conventional agriculture practices, as Nepal is facing a litany of challenges in a changing climate. While Nepal is considered a water-rich country, even today, there is scarcity of usable water in Kathmandu, let alone clean drinking water. Large-scale floods and landslides are common, and glacier outbursts are increasing with devastating impacts. In this article we present some of the emerging technologies which can be utilised to tackle these challenges.

The fourth technological revolution is inventing new technologies at a rapid pace.  Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), blockchain technology, drones, robots or autonomous vehicles, augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR), the internet of the things (IoT), and real-time decision support systems (DSS) can be used to transform how we manage our water resources.

Technology can improve water use efficiency in many ways. For instance, in agriculture, we can use precision drip irrigation systems with sensors to monitor real-time crop growth, water availability, water consumption, and weather forecasting. We can use machine learning to optimise water applications and increase yields while reducing water use.

With ICT, we can imagine farmers able to trade allocated water with their counterparts knowing the latest weather data, crop prices, and long-term climate trends using their mobile. We can see farmers walking around the field using their smartphones. Such ICT tools may range from simple mobile telephones to more advanced field sensors, telemetric data transmission, and satellite-driven remote sensing of hydrological conditions. We can implement blockchain technology from farm to market which can minimise the role of cartels. Ultimately, farmers would benefit from the potential to improve transparency and credibility with this technology.

Remote sensing can analyse, predict and help manage droughts and floods. Real time remote sensing coupled with IoT can save many lives along the rivers with early notification systems of ongoing flood events. Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) can be used independently of weather conditions and time of day. InSAR assisted advanced satellite monitoring technologies can be vital for extraction and analysis of surface and groundwater.

Robotics, drones, and remote-control systems can be used to construct and repair water infrastructure, particularly to avoid the loss of human lives in dangerous zones. These technologies are helpful in finding the best routes for water services in rural and urban areas, minimising both cost and risks while maintaining quality.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and IoT can use historical data for analysis, prediction and notification of potential risks, economic loss, cost of repairs and operation, and availability of services. Blockchain-based repairs can reduce processing time and bureaucracy with an open and transparent system. Furthermore, AI can be used to glean insights from large-scale datasets from various sources. This technology can help effectively identify leaks and aid repairs in different water distribution networks. Accuracy and speed can be improved with the adoption of monitoring systems using remote sensors and IoT. Early action can significantly save costs and improve service delivery.

Water from the Himalayas has the potential to create a world-class brand. Physical sensors can regularly monitor water quality, quantity, and source of pollutants and inform the public with IoT devices. Blockchain technology can fill customers’ existing trust gap by tracking the quality and quantity of every drop of water straight from the mountains to mouth in a more transparent way where information is open to all.

AR and VR can train human resources. We can partner with multinational water utilities and create a virtual environment to train human resources pragmatically. This will reduce cost and time while also increasing effectiveness of training.

Advanced sensors fitted in sewage systems, combined with IoT and AI can help monitor health systems and curb disease outbreaks. The overall cost of adopting this technology will be significantly less when we compare the health impact of large-scale disease outbreaks such as that of Jajarkot.

Artificial neural networks (a subset of AI) can be adopted to estimate biodiversity. With hybrid use of AI and computational intelligence (CI) ongoing research can become more accurate and contribute to develop models which better represent complex natural processes. Hence, with the hybrid application of CI and AI along with machine learning, we can bring a paradigm shift in water resource management with a better balance between economic benefit and environmental needs.

The real challenge is to organise and secure the scattered and fragmented data and information into one trusted platform for everyone to use. Government agencies should cooperate and upgrade their systems with proper planning and budgeting.  Some of the hydropower and water utilities in China are ten years ahead than any other organisation or country in the world in terms of using AI and robotics. One example is the partnership between Newater Inc Technology, a wastewater company, and NW Blockchain ltd. to implement blockchain technology in wastewater treatment processes.

While our neighbours are making great strides, Nepal is lagging behind with expensive internet and cumbersome bureaucracy. Better late than never, Nepal still has time to act!

Sagar is a water science, policy and management graduate from the University of Oxford, UK. His research area of interest is in the fields of water, energy and environment. He is an engineer by training and has worked in various governmental, non-governmental and UN platforms.

Naresh is a lecturer at Khwopa College of Engineering, Nepal. His research interests are in agricultural water management, sustainable hydropower, environmental flows, and optimization of water utilization. He graduated from Hohai University in 2019 with a master's degree in conservancy and hydropower engineering.

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