Today, freshwater is scarce: 21 Indian cities are predicted to run out of groundwater this year and 54% of the country faces severe water stress. Water is critical to our survival, and the need for devising systems to conserve it has never been as pressing. Growing evidence shows that creating sustainable, thriving communities needs us as a society to transition to net-zero water buildings.

The heart of any net-zero system is ensuring wastewater is properly treated and recycled so that reliance on freshwater can be reduced dramatically. Unfortunately, today nearly 75% of wastewater treatment plants are dysfunctional even though treating and reusing wastewater could meet 60-70% of urban water needs and solve the water crisis. Why does this happen even though customers are spending money operating and maintaining their plant every month?

Our co-founder, one of the biggest wastewater specialists in India, observed these issues firsthand while managing over 350+ plants at his first company, WAPP systems. We also interviewed hundreds of plant owners and experts from institutions like the WASH Institute to make sure we understand the root causes of this crisis correctly. Through this exercise, we have observed that every customer has cost constraints within which no O&M vendor can depute an expert onsite. These issues thus arise because operations are managed onsite by low-skill operators who lack the data, expertise, and incentives to manage water assets properly and solve technical issues. As a result, not only do plant owners incur huge expenses to get little output, but also face the risk of fines and shutdowns since plants are often non-compliant.

We are working to solve these problems for good by transforming labour-driven water operations to expertise-driven operations through DigitalPaani, a lifecycle management tool, that provides the technical expertise needed to manage wastewater operations real-time to low-skilled operators on the ground. At its core, DigitalPaani is a management software that provides operations teams step-by-step instructions and training for how to prevent and resolve every issue in the plant. This software is powered by a network of sensors, including proprietary sensors to monitor biological process health, as well as 75+ algorithms that comprehensively diagnose issues in plants so that these instructions can be based on the real-time needs of the plant.

For example, let’s say the pH levels in the core reactor have dropped dramatically due to a complex biological reaction. Typically operators onsite have no way to understand what is going on in the reactor and how to resolve it, and those outside the site have no visibility on the issues coming up until a few weeks pass and the issue starts impacting treated water quality. On the other hand, DigitalPaani detects, diagnoses, and sends out the appropriate instructions to resolve the issue instantly, preventing them from ever worsening. These instructions are linked to video-based training modules, ensuring that people are actually well equipped to execute the required action well. If tasks are not done on time, they then escalate through a series of phone and email-based alerts throughout the operations hierarchy.

Additionally, DigitalPaani also automates key equipment in plants, provides comprehensive reporting on the plant, and manages the plant’s entire lifecycle by suggesting retrofits when needed and managing each plant’s maintenance history over time. Finally, we also have a centralized control unit that is monitoring plants 24/7 and coordinating directly with the operations team to ensure work is being done correctly and on time. Hence, DigitalPaani is not just a technology product but rather a whole management solution to ensure plants are managed well and customers get the results they desire.

This new style of operations has shown great results consistently, transforming dysfunctional plants into compliant assets while improving water quality and reducing operational costs for customers by up to 41%. For example, one of our plants was 14-years old and prone to frequent issues as a result of operational mismanagement. We detected and supported the operational team in solving several issues such as poor backwash practices that prevented filters from working, choked pumps, ineffectual chlorine dosing, and failed automation. We also streamlined the entire operational process and recommended energy-saving measures at key points of inefficiency. As a result, the plant is now treating 100% of its sewage as well as recycling all of it. At the same time, energy needs have come down by 33% and breakdowns by 86%. Similarly, DigitalPaani has reduced labour needs in another one of our plants by 66% and the plant has not experienced any breakdowns in our time managing operations because we have been able to detect and manage issues like pump choking in real-time.

What have we learned through this process? First, only data alone can’t solve problems in a space as complex as water operations. While many today are installing sensors to measure their outlet water quality, this only gives us an indication that something is wrong weeks after the initial process upsets that caused the poor quality. More importantly, it still does not help diagnose and actually manage the issue. Moreover, even once one assesses what the problem is, ensuring everyone in the operations team actually gets the correct instructions and guidance to execute effectively is a whole other task since there is often significant fragmentation among actors and poor data literacy in the operations team. Secondly, just automating plants doesn’t do it either. Automation is typically implemented as a one-time solution in most plants. However, because it isn’t integrated into the operations process from end to end, operators typically put the plant back in manual mode and fail to maintain automation equipment. As a result, the equipment degrades entirely and the plant is back to running manually within a year.

Ultimately, the only solutions that can work are those that are designing for the entire operational structure around water assets and ensuring data and automation is fully integrated in how everyone does their work, including low-skilled operators who typically do not engage with data at all. This is exactly what we are doing with DigitalPaani, and this approach has won us awards from organizations like Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission and the Next Generation Water Action, a global competition spanning Denmark, Ghana, Kenya, India and South Korea. In 5 years, we hope to be paving the path to a more sustainable future by removing as much sewage from water bodies everyday as 78 olympic sized pools, saving enough freshwater everyday to meet the needs of 700,000+ people, and removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as 7 million mature trees.

Of course, net-zero doesn’t end at wastewater management. DigitalPaani is also a smart solution for total water management in each building, be it managing WTPs, ETPs, cooling towers, or measuring total water demand in the building. Our eventual vision is to create water positive buildings that in turn significantly improve quality of life in our cities. If you’re excited about meeting your sustainability and compliance goals without spending much more, we would love to hear from you.