Water, climate change and digitalization: the role of university teaching in equipping future leaders to deliver on SDG 6

On October 12th, Guillaume and Mark were invited to a Breakfast Research and Practice seminar hosted by the Research Center for Grand Challenges at HEC Lausanne. The aim was to share their experience and thoughts about the place of technology and digital solutions to help solve the challenges associated with access to water in emerging countries and to highlight the practical steps for water operators. This blog post first summarizes the challenges and possible solutions related to water provisioning and wastewater management in the context of climate change, and then provides an outlook of the role university teaching can play in equipping future leaders to drive positive change in the sector.

Climate change threats to the water cycle and possible responses

Climate change is a major threat to water security. There are four key risks linked with water management: availability, quality, ecosystem stability, and water resource access. Hotter temperatures, severe weather events, longer droughts, and loss of biodiversity will have a significant impact on these parameters.

In this context, the water sector can respond by fighting on two fronts: better adaptation and contribution to mitigate climate change. On the adaptation side, this means investing in urban resilience projects, assessing demographic trends, using early detection systems, improving the quality of sources, demand management, reuse, and expanding the use of integrated water policies, especially for agricultural water uses. On the mitigation side, water management can play a role in soil restoration, agroecological projects that sequester carbon dioxide, reduction of GHG emissions, and in adoption of energy transition programs. However, the water sector is also a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: For example, in Switzerland conventional wastewater treatment is responsible for 1-2% of total GHG emissions[i].

Technology can help achieve SDG6 on water and sanitation

We are still lagging in achieving SDG6. Today 2.2 billion people (27% of the world population) still lacks safely managed drinking water services and 3.5 billion (43%) lack safely managed sanitation services[ii]. To expedite the achievement of SG6, the UN has proposed an acceleration framework where data, information systems, and innovation play a central role[iii].

With that in mind, what is at stake for water utilities? 

The following are some of the growing concerns and challenges of the sector: deteriorating water/wastewater infrastructure, lack of public appreciation for the value of water, affordability, water scarcity/supply, drought potential.

The investment cost of a new wastewater treatment plant in a middle-income country ranges from 50 to 150 €/capita and the operating costs range from 4 to 12 €/capita/year[iv]. In high income countries the construction and operating costs of a state-of-the-art plant are much higher. Construction and maintenance of the sewage collection network brings additional costs. Moreover, the systems require trained staff, tax revenues, enforcement of environmental laws, and a constant supply of electricity. These challenges are not met everywhere. Globally, 14% of water discharged from wastewater treatment plants and 52% of water discharged from septic tanks has not been safely treated[v].

Digitalization can be part of the answer to tackle these challenges, focusing on three main business areas: the management of infrastructure and operations, customer and employees/field agent engagement, and collaboration with stakeholders. Additionally, the development and deployment of more affordable treatment plant designs would benefit from recent advancements in digital data acquisition, analysis, and modelling.

Water utilities have slowly initiated their digital transformation journey

The technology offering is broad, and innovators and vendors continuously bring sophisticated hardware, data, and software combinations to the market. However, practitioners still need help to integrate the novelty and realize the potential of technology to move from a planned and reactive business to a data-driven and proactive approach. Recent studies show that numerous water utilities predominantly lack the vision and the clear organization and governance required to drive the journey. Two-thirds of respondents of a GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association) and the World Bank survey[vi] still need to document their digital vision, and two-thirds still need to appoint a committee to orchestrate the digital transformation of their entity. Out of the nearly one hundred water utilities surveyed worldwide with the aim of understanding the reasons for adopting digital solutions, the three main objectives include i) guaranteeing access to water (27%), ii) ensuring level and quality of service (19%), and iii) ensuring water quality (19%).

At the same time, the digital transformation of water utilities is already here. It is not new, the journey started decades ago with the introduction of IT-enabled functions. What makes the trend hotter nowadays is the variety of digital solutions on the market, the pace of change, and the level of integration across platforms. Water utilities must adopt a holistic approach throughout the delivery cycle, from design to operations. Otherwise, the risk is that all the effort and investment ends up being just another series of sophisticated pieces of technology and gigabytes of data – without transforming the organization.

Key characteristics of a successful digital transformation journey are: ability to design and deliver numerous projects across the organization at the same time, mobilization of a variety of skills and technical competencies, and clear governance established on fact-based prioritization.

Message to academia on how give some essential skills to future leaders

Universities can play a crucial role in providing the business world with skilled and futureproof talents. What can be the message and learning points for the educational community about skills and competencies?

  1. Teach the basics of project management: with many projects delivered simultaneously, we need more people with project management skills. It does not mean certified PMs everywhere, but at least a better project management culture.
  2. Develop communication, collaboration, and influencing skills: digital projects involve a variety of talents, coming from multiple backgrounds and cultures, from techie guys to ground workers. Projects require good orchestrators able to coordinate a variety of topics and large multicompetent teams of experts, prioritize activities, and measure progress and adoption. 
  3. Raise awareness around benefits and indicators for better data-driven decision-making: Digitalization requires setting a clear vision, building a realistic roadmap, and tracking benefits, progress, and outcomes with continuous measurement.
  4. Encourage research on new business models to finance the modernization: Sustainable transformation comes with a robust business model, allowing the right level of resources over the years. Additionally, the needs, in terms of ethical distribution and use of water, training, and business readiness, must be studied. Having a clear understanding of the total cost of ownership of digital solutions is paramount. This is especially true with digital solutions that necessitate OPEX – even more than CAPEX.
  5. Explain how to put digital sobriety at the heart of modernization: Because the use of hardware, software and data centers comes with an impact on energy and resource consumption, it is important to assess the footprint of the digitalization and its impact on the environment across each project lifetime. There are existing frameworks to assess the deployment of digital solutions across multiple dimensions[vii]
  6. Teach methods to conduct economic feasibility studies that include, in addition to some of the recommendations above, scenario creation, analysis of alternatives, comparison grids, impacts on stakeholders, life cycle assessments, GHG emissions, unit costs, cost/benefits analysis and other metrics that aid decision makers in selecting the best projects to implement.





[v] UN Habitat and WHO, 2021. Progress on wastewater treatment – Global status and acceleration needs for SDG indicator 6.3.1. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva.



  • Mark McCormick

    Mark is an environmental engineer and data scientist with 20 years of experience in applied research and consulting engineering in the areas of water, wastewater, biomass fuels, urban hydraulics, and municipal solid waste. He is particularly interested in extracting valuable information from data to improve environmental quality and to create more healthy living conditions. Outside of work, he is a volunteer expert for the Solar Impulse Foundation, member of a community garden, and a contributor to local politics.

  • Guillaume Fery

    Guillaume is a water and sanitation engineer and project manager focusing on the modernisation/digitalisation of water utilities in the context of large international development projects. He is currently an expert for international development banks such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He has over 20 years of experience working at the intersection of technology deployment and water utility operations. Outside of work, he is a volunteer and ambassador for the Solar Impulse Foundation, where he works with start-ups and entrepreneurs to help evaluate cleantech solutions and scale their impact.

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