Digital Water

‘Digital water’, understood as the uptake of datafied smart technologies within traditional water supply systems, is imagined by its leading advocates to optimize the economy and sustainability of the water utilities of tomorrow. Digital technologies are envisioned to enable informed decision making in an ever more uncertain world, based on real-time interoperable water data collected and analysed via imaging satellites, sensortechnology, machine learning and AI-empowered predictions. Leakage in water infrastructure, for instance, causes huge water and economic losses around the globe. “LEAKman” is a Danish initiative that combines pressure reduction, online hydraulic modelling, water balance reporting and noise sensors listening for leakages to deliver a ”unique Danish solution to stop global water loss”[1] . This, and other digital solutions, are projected to bridge data gaps, monitor system resilience, and even predict breakdowns. As new digital technologies emerge, ambitions grow, crystallizing the way water is imagined, managed, distributed, and regulated as a composite resource, entailing both water and data on water (availability, quality, flow, pressure, consumption). With digitization enabling mass water data production, the hydrological cycle is augmented, and the outcome is a resource-double: water-cum-data. The future history of water (Ballestero 2019) is, thus, partially digital, and its water flows are controlled by data. Contrary to water – a finite resource managed in closed systems – contemporary flows of water-cum-data are cumulative, immeasurable, and infinite (Hogan 2015). And, just like data, the potential of digital water is articulated as limitless.

‘Digital water’, in all its versions, carries a lot of promise (Anand et al. 2018). This promise takes on local and national forms but is global in its aspirations. It is a promise of optimization and access, of equitable water futures and of responding to current and future climatic challenges. And for the most inventive, it also promises to scale for export to markets worldwide, resulting in economic profit and growth. Take the installation of smart meters in Arequipa, Peru as a case in point. In the city of Arequipa, scarce surface water is used for domestic, industrial, agricultural and mining purposes (Andersen 2016). Smart meters not only improve accuracy in water billing and measurement, they also displace the ability of water users to locally solve conflicts and disagreements that arise around. Datafiying water, thus, disrupts waterworlds (Hastrup & Hastrup 2016), affecting the capacity to negotiate water rights locally. Just like unequal access to fresh water is a widespread challenge, proprietary approaches to water-cum-data may very well feed a ‘digital divide’ between ‘data-rich’ and ‘data-poor’ in the industry (boyd & Crawford 2012). And here, data-poor means water-poor. Digitalizing water implies questions of democracy, privacy, equity and the commodification of water; issues that beg for critical studies of digital water as sociotechnical assemblages of the present and the future.

[1] specific water problems.


Authors: Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen and Jonas Falzarano Jessen



Andersen, A. O. 2016. Infrastructures of progress and dispossession Collective responses to shrinking water access among farmers in Arequipa, Peru. Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology, 74: 28–41

Anand, N., Gupta, A. & Appel, H. 2018. The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ballestero, A. 2019. A future history of water. Durham: Duke University Press.

boyd, d. & Crawford, K. 2012. CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA. Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Hastrup, K. & Hastrup, F. 2016. Introduction: Waterworlds at Large. In K. Hastrup & F. Hastrup (Eds.): Waterworlds. Anthropology in Fluid Environments. Londong: Berghahn Books, pp. 1-22.

Hogan, M. 2015. “Data flows and water woes: The Utah Data Center”. Big Data & Society July–December 2015: 1–12. DOI: 10.1177/2053951715592429

Image: “digital drop” by Javier Álvarez J. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Posted in TiP Lexicon.