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View from India: Technology trickles down hope for water crisis

India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat. What can technology do to help?

Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, according to the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog’s June 2018 Report, ‘Composite Water Management Index’.

The report indicates that the crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual 6 per cent loss in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

To put things in perspective, rivers and groundwater are the main sources of water. Contamination and industrialisation has shrunk the river system in India, compelling people to largely depend on groundwater which has resulted in a water deficit at the national level. Coupled with that, the vagaries of nature have led to either floods or droughts in several parts of the country.

Ironically, the depletion of water resources has urged startups to arrive at technology-driven solutions for water management. Water, managed efficiently and of good quality, should filter down to the masses. Led by this belief, startups have turned a water crisis into a business opportunity. They have created a market for disruptive innovative water solutions which have replaced many manual operations.

Many of these startups have conceptualised B2B (business-to-business) models that have been developed using the Internet of Things (IoT) as the basis. IoT has made waves as a water management solution, as it gives an accurate insight into water usage. IoT-based smart metering provides data for water suppliers to monitor the usage, apart from leaks and damages. This becomes a cost-effective data-driven water resource management solution.

DrinkPrime

DrinkPrime has been initiated to solve the problem of access to safe drinking water, which is believed to be the biggest problem in India today. The aim is to provide clean fresh drinking water for urban citizens. “About 400M people in Urban India do not drink safe water, with more than 20 per cent of them spending more than Rs 500 per household per month on inferior quality drinking water solutions,” says Manas Ranjan Hota, co-founder DrinkPrime. Hota teamed up with friends Vijender Reddy Muthyala to start DrinkPrime in 2016. As they proceeded, close friends Somesh Reddy and Ankababu Peddisetty also joined.

The team decided to get to the root of the matter and that’s how they began to manufacture smart purifiers. Things didn’t stop at that, as the team came up with the idea of a subscription-led business model which they describe as Smart Ownership Program. A monthly fee is charged based on the water consumed, while the fee on the device, installation and maintenance is waived off. It may be a relatively new frontier, but consumers are quick to lap it up. “Operational in Bangalore since August 2017, we are present in over 1,500 households and growing at 20 per cent month-on-month,” adds Hota.

From the technology standpoint, the IoT and water purification technologies - including triple-layer filtering of reverse osmosis (RO) ultraviolet (UV) and ultra-filtration (UF) - form the basis of the purifier. It also has in-built sensors which remotely monitor the quality and quantity of water dispensed, thereby ensuring that customers get pure water.

“While developing the concept, we realised that merely installing a water purifier does not guarantee clean drinking water. The purifier system has to be in the best of the condition at all times,” explains Hota. The reverse osmosis purifiers need to be maintained at frequent intervals, based on the water quality and consumption. If the filters are not replaced on time, people could be drinking unhygienic water from their reverse osmosis purifiers without realising it. Hence, custom-built hardware, which the company refers to as ‘BOT’, was developed. The IoT-enabled ‘BOT’ connects with the company’s servers through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and monitors the purifier. DrinkPrime connects with its customers through the web and apps that run on Android and iOS. Right now, Hota and his team are working on a range of do-it-yourself (DIY) water purifiers for users to directly change the filters.

WaterOn

Water billing in housing complexes calls for attention. Water bills are generated through an aggregate of water consumed by all households. Individual consumption is rarely metered; small families with minimal consumption end up paying more. Consequently, individual consumptions are never equal, making people insensitive towards water wastage in their homes. Inaccurate water billing processes and the lack of water metering frustrates people, but for Vivek Shukla, it led to an initiative - SmarterHomes Technologies - positioned as a metering technology company. WaterOn is its offering.

“WaterOn is a 100 per cent automated smart water meter, offering accurate metering, leak prevention (detection and control) and long life. It’s an end-to-end solution that provides real-time readings to the consumers to help prevent wastage and save money,” explains Vivek Shukla, CEO, who co-founded SmarterHomes Technologies with Kasturi Rangan M R, who works as the chief technology officer (CTO).

WaterOn has sensors and generates real-time data whereby consumers can stop the water supply if there is a leakage. “We also have WiFi and GSM-based meters for individual home owners, allowing them to measure the water consumption in real time and also prevent damages to their property due to a leak,” he adds.

As for the tech stack, the development and expansion of IoT infrastructure has given scope to try out new communication variants like narrow-band (NB-IoT), long range (LoRa) and other low power wide area network (LPWAN) modules. A LoRa-based meter is now being developed to be so power efficient that it can run for several years with a small battery capacity. A module that can be retro-fitted on an existing meter is another focus.

WaterOn water meters come in various variants for different applications. Nuclious, a hybrid variant of wired meters and wireless communication hub, is intended for high-rise buildings. The meters are IS4064 Class C, OIML and MID certified, thereby offering accuracy.

“The meters connect with each other through a special-purpose cable which not only manages the data transmission but also powers the devices for real-time operations. The meters have a long-life battery and electronic storage of consumption counts. Approximately 45 days of consumption records are stored in its local storage,” highlights Shukla. All consumptions are counted and the data is sent to the cloud server through Nuclious. The Nuclious and meters are powered by a solar power pack. The platform manages the data for billing purposes and a comprehensive dashboard gives an overview of supply-consumption statistics. This 2014 company is creating ripples in many Indian metros.

AquaGen

When Ganesh Shankar began to develop energy meters for the smart-grid market during his stint at General Electric (GE), it triggered an idea. It occurred to him to create a dedicated platform to make sustainable technologies as the default choice for the world. The thought proved to be a good starting point, as Shankar - an alumni of Indian Institute of Science (IISc) - collaborated with like-minded professionals, Dr Gopal Krishna Murthy alumni of IISc, CN Thimmappaiah from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Vinod Prabhau from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). The outcome was FluxGen Engineering Technologies, founded in 2011 to develop technologies in the renewable energy domain and smart microgrids.

Since its inception, FluxGen has leveraged IoT and data analytics to monitor-analyse renewable energy systems, solar photovoltaics for rural electrification and water management systems for agriculture (irrigation systems) and industries. “Last October we applied for multiple startup accelerators as we required mentoring to accelerate growth in our business and product development. Since our customer base is in India and we were looking for contextual mentoring in IoT, we decided to go with Cisco Launchpad Accelerator,” said Nikhil Bohra, head strategy and sales, FluxGen Engineering Technologies Pvt. Ltd.

Within days after getting into Cisco Launchpad, the core team figured out that they were doing too many things as a startup. The transformative push came when they decided to concentrate on an industrial water management system because industries pay a premium to source water and have to adhere to strict environmental regulations. “Our value proposition is to help industries save water expenditure by up to 15 per cent. We use wireless networks and cloud analytics to monitor-analyse the water stored, consumed and recycled, besides helping in identifying leakage or wastage. Most of this is otherwise done manually,” reasons Bohra.

AquaGen is an IoT-based water management system that the company uses. Water level sensors, flow sensors and pressure sensors combine-connect to the AquaGen hardware. Nodes are installed at various points where the water is stored, consumed and treated before being expelled. Sensors generate real-time data, which is sent to the cloud platform.

AquaGen users can view the data through a customisable graphical user interface over a web browser or through a mobile app. The cloud analytics determine potential losses during usage, as well as notifying industries about the anomalies detected in the pipeline.

Given its ability to address industrial water solutions in a realistic manner, the IoT India Congress awarded FluxGen the IoT Startup of the Year 2016.

Besides its industry core focus, FluxGen is also piloting with a few hotels, as well as considering residential properties.

Technological and measurable tools are being developed for the successful management of water. Let’s hope the community of startups in the water space grows and raises the bar for water management with their tech solutions.

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