Water companies’ abilities to manage the safe and adequate provisioning of this precious resource are constantly being tested. The global population grows, climates change and customer expectations shift. Additionally, operating performance and energy consumption regulations and standards tighten, and water grows scarcer and costlier to manage.

As is the case with all companies, especially those in the midst of adopting transformative technologies, security is among the most pressing concerns for water utilities. The cyberattack surface expands as Smart Water Networks begin to transform the operational technology systems that support water supply and wastewater networks. Smart Water Networks integrate smart hardware devices, smart technology solutions and services into the legacy water distribution infrastructure, and they require two-way near-real-time communications with field sensors, measurement and control devices. These data-driven networks promote sustainability and efficiency, but it also becomes a significant challenge to detect, delay and deter potential attacks on the infrastructure.

The UK government has published a cyber security strategy for the water sector, setting a goal for it to operate at a greater level of cyber maturity and to achieve by 2021 a “secure, effective, and confident water sector, resilient to an ever-evolving cyber threat.”  A coherent security posture must be maintained across physical assets (pumps, pipes, reservoirs, etc.) through to sensing and control into the data and IT elements — communicating, collecting and collating data, and managing data and services for analysis and decision-making.

Cyber security policy, process and protection techniques must be the mainstay of any multi-layered security approach. These elements, supported by consistent monitoring, analysis and response, will enable water utilities to maintain control of ongoing threat detection and ensure vulnerability management.

Secure information flow

Given the data-driven nature of Smart Water Networks, the flow of information through them must be reliable and secure. Strict cybersecurity control of the Smart Water Network is vital to using data integration and analysis techniques, some of which leverage AI, to collate and analyze masses of telemetric data from smart devices.

The actionable output of analysis informs critical processes for water supply and wastewater operations including optimizing pump maintenance schedules, finding leaks and root causes for contaminated water, preventing bursts and conducting digital twin testing of network operation changes.

By enabling automation and the delivery of real-world actionable intelligence to where it is needed, Smart Water Networks give utilities a tremendous opportunity to improve productivity and efficiency, intelligently adapt operations, provide decision support information and react in real time, while enhancing customer service and alleviating impending water scarcity. Given the link between gross domestic product (GDP) and the availability of clean drinking water, it is essential that we see more integrated thinking in cross-infrastructure planning so that water can be efficiently and effectively delivered to all.

Reduce regulatory risk

Globally, utilities are spending nearly $184 billion each year related to the supply of clean water, $14 billion of which is spent on energy costs just to pump water around the current networks. An aging water system infrastructure must be updated, particularly in locales that already have water challenges, such as the Thames Valley.

Clearly, the need for better water control and secure Smart Water Networks could never be greater, hence the regulatory pressure being applied to water companies to invest in replacing aging assets and in technology to improve their performance. The ability to mitigate legal and regulatory risk in the water sector improves when this asset-intensive industry introduces a data governance framework to ensure that data is effectively and securely managed throughout its life cycle.

Smart Water Networks aren’t ubiquitous yet, but utilities, along with regulators, investors, industry and utility associations, researchers and technology providers, must more aggressively move in that direction for all the benefits they offer. And, with that end in view, the water industry must plan ahead to address security, legal and regulatory risks.