OECD Secretary-General

Putting the information revolution to work for water


Water Policy in the Age of Big Data

Opening Remarks by Angel Gurría,

Secretary-General, OECD

Paris, 21 September 2015



Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am delighted to welcome you all here today. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank our partners: the US National Science Foundation, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI), the Johnson Family Foundation, and the Let’s Talk About Water Film and Water Symposia.


This event represents an opportune moment for us to talk about water policy in the age of big data.


Later this week, the global community will meet in New York to commit to 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, which will drive development policy in the coming decades. Water features prominently in the SDGs, with a stand-alone goal and as a contribution to several others, like health, cities, and ecosystems.


This is an important step forward, as our failure to deal with inadequate supply and sanitation is estimated to be costing us around USD 260 billion per year globally.


But the SDGs will only be effective if they are implemented in full force. Once adopted, we will face a significant implementation challenge, which demands a rigorous monitoring process. The experience of the MDGs shows this is not a trivial exercise. Last time around, we had to improvise by using “access to a pipe” as a proxy measure to monitor progress towards safe water supply.


Data and science will have to play a critical part in the process. At the OECD evidence is our watchword, and we are a global leader on promoting policy approaches informed by scientific know-how. We agreed wholeheartedly with David Grey when he said that “Science without policy is just science. Policy without science is gambling.”


The stakes are far too high for us to gamble with water! In a number of instances, we do not even know the pace of depletion of groundwater, on which cities or farmers rely. We are unable to trace diffused water pollution. Few cities can monitor leakage in real time in their water supply and sanitation networks. Under such conditions, we need to carefully target our policies and investments in water infrastructure, and to manage risks of excess, scarcity or pollution.


Climate change only adds to the complexity of our task. The importance of securing a historic international accord at COP21 in December is greater than ever. But even if we do so, bigger and better data will be needed to reduce uncertainty about how a changing climate affects water availability, precipitations and other weather events. Policy makers and local communities need fine-grained evidence to target policy responses at the appropriate scale.


In response to this challenge the OECD is building innovative, interactive tools to draw in more and better information, and communicate it more and better to policy makers and stakeholders.


We are also trying to use water data in more innovative ways. We are measuring the effectiveness of water-related institutions and governance instruments based on a set of water governance indicators, which we plan to launch in 2016.


Our forthcoming Green Growth – Sustainable Development Forum, to be held here in December, will explore how big data and the use of drones in agriculture can support a green agricultural revolution, optimising the use of water and other resources for food production. In addition to the technical and regulatory implications of these technologies, we will look at how these innovations can play into policy design, for example, to monitor farm practices or assess crop insurance claims to estimate losses and thus indemnities.



New developments generate opportunities


Big data and the information revolution are potential game-changers in water management. The good news is that data can now be collected from outer space, or on-site in farms or sewer networks.


Satellite imagery, combined with weather data, is used to enhance forecasting and risk management, and to better plan for droughts and floods. Later today we will hear from Jay Famiglietti on how satellite technologies help monitor aquifer depletion. Today 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have been depleted beyond their sustainability tipping points.


High resolution maps, combined with hydrologic modelling, also help identify hotspots for water pollution to better target policy responses and investments.


Storing and collecting digital data also means information must be available in real time. In the United Kingdom, for instance, an advanced pressure management system that combines software, sensors and controllers is used to detect leakages early on, leading to a reduction in water loss of 1.5 million litres per day. In the city of Paju in Korea, K-water deployed real-time water quality monitoring and information disclosure through electronic notice boards, helping to restore consumers’ trust in the water supply services and increasing the share of the population drinking tap water from 1% to 20% in six months.


Investment in data can also save costs in infrastructure. The OECD report on Water and Cities highlights that urban water utilities increasingly rely on information technology and on GIS data to gain precise knowledge of the state and performance of their assets, and to better target and phase maintenance and renewal investments.



New developments also generate challenges and risks


The opportunities associated with new data sets will only materialise if we enhance our capacity to make sense of data and mitigate risks of ‘too much’ information.


A massive influx of data can reduce our capacity to crunch and make sense of it. The Netherlands’ water database handles two petabytes of sensor data annually. And since new sensor technologies are constantly being added, data will continue to grow. We need to ensure that our capacity to assess data improves accordingly.


New data also generates risks relating to data privacy and security, data sharing, transparency, and ownership. Failing to manage these risks or to communicate data and scientific evidence could lead to distrust among stakeholders.


Governments have a role to play in influencing how data is used – or misused – in water management. The OECD Principles on Water Governance acknowledge the importance of providing, updating and sharing policy-relevant data and information on water.


Today’s panel and film provide an innovative opportunity for scientists and policy makers to share expectations and experiences on new ways of producing and using information to support policy making.


Making sense of and communicating data requires imagination and creativity. The bolder and more ambitious we are, the better we can produce, analyse and communicate policy-relevant data to support better water policies for better lives.


Thank you.


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