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The Peninsula

Korea's Ambitious Smart Water Grid Initiative

Published November 9, 2017

By Hwan Kang

The word “Smart Grid” became popularized when the energy industry thought applying sensors and having comprehensive control over the whole cycle of generating and consuming electricity was a good idea. Some people thought it would be even better if they could do the same with water, coining the term, “Smart Water Grid (SWG).” South Korea is one of the pioneers in this area as it tries to combat the country’s chronic water shortage stress.

South Korea the “Water-Stressed” Nation

South Korea experiences extreme cases of drought and flood each year, which means that the country has too much water and too little water at the same time. More than half of the total precipitation is concentrated during the summer while it becomes dry rest of the year. The country also experiences wide variance in precipitation by the region as well. Some provinces face water shortages even during the monsoon season because the rain comes down in only concentrated areas. What is worse is that yearly variance in precipitation is also big, ranging from 950 mm per year to 1600 mm per year. Such wide unpredictability forces South Korea to formulate a better water management system.

In terms of consumption, South Korea has been facing an increase in water usage along with economic growth over the years, while the available water source remained pretty much steady. Such a gap in supply and demand of water drove the country to deplete its water sources, with 33 percent of total available water presumed to be depleted according to OECD research. Such a state is represented by high level of water stress, placing Korea 50th out of 167 countries in terms of Water Stress Index, which is just behind severely stressed countries in Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Smart Water Management Initiative by K-water

Instead of staying stressed out about water withdrawal, Korea decided to use internet technology as a solution to build its own SWG. Dubbed as the “Smart Water Management Initiative (SWMI),” the Korean Water Resources Corporation (K-water) revealed its ambitious plan to use the ICT (Information & Communications Technologies) to control the whole cycle of water consumption. Similar to smart electricity grid, the initiative aims to put sensors on every part of the water distribution process to keep track of it on a real-time basis and manage facilities to efficiently recycle the water and re-distribute it.

The purposes of building SWG are to maximize the limited water resources and deal with uncertainties that arise with subsequent draught and flood. K-water expects that the successful operation of the SWG will eventually reduce the need to construct additional dams, leading to much cheaper solutions. The system also plans to communicate with the consumers through an online application by showing them real time information on the quality of water they use and provide assistance if they need it.

The SWG has gone through a trial period in selected regions such as Paju, where it has brought up the percentage of residents who drink tap water to 19.3 percent from 1 percent, improving confidence in the safety of the water, with an 80.7 percent satisfaction rate. In case of Seosan, a region which suffered from water leakage, the system was able to bring up the flow rate up to 90 percent from 60 percent, saving a significant amount of water and money. SWG is widely expanding its area with applications pending for Naju, the Korean Airforce, and Sejong city.

Growing Global Smart Water Management Market and Pioneering Korea

Water management is now considered as a prospective market with water shortages looming as a major problem in the future. According to the OECD, the water management for urban areas will become increasingly important because 86 percent of the OECD population will live in cities, while demand for water will increase by 55 percent by 2050. What is worse is that urban areas are more susceptible to pollution as well as environmental disasters, which calls for preventative water management plans. According to Ecolab, water management is also becoming an important part of corporate strategies by the companies, too. As the cost of acquiring necessary water rises, they are looking for ways to stably supply water for their industries. Such combined demand is becoming more realistic as industries are investing more in the smart water management market, pushing the market to grow on the average of 17.2 percent every year.

Amid all these changes, it is not surprising that Korea is not the only one trying to develop SWG. In fact, United States was the first country to coin the term with the launch of the Smart Water Grid Initiative back in 2009. Germany, France, Israel and Singapore are also developing their own methods of managing water with ICT either from their need to control water related disasters or recycle it for re-use. IBM is leading the management market as a private company by providing software called IBM Intelligent Water for rivers such as the Hudson River and the Amazon River and in countries such as Amsterdam and Ireland.

Korea is striving to acquire a position in the global market and is in fact showing some progress. Along with its future plans to expand its SWG program domestically, it has signed several memorandums of understanding (MOU) with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Jordan and Vietnam, where they all suffer from severe water shortages. In the case of the ADB, K-water has promised to send its SWG experts to four South Asian countries and provide the necessary education and assistance to fix the developing nations’ inefficient water supply systems. For Jordan, on the other hand, the SWG developed by K-water will consist of desalination plants that will filter the sea water from the Dead Sea. Lastly, the MOU with Vietnam is about managing the drinking water in the country which is a fast growing market in the region. In addition to various forms of SWG cooperation, Korea is planning to hold the 2017 Smart Water Grid International Conference, which has been held annually in Incheon.

Problems

Although the Korean Smart water management initiative looks promising, it is not without its problems. The OECD report on enhancing water use efficiency in Korea lists the problems comprehensively. A major flaw in these endeavors is the funds for these projects. Currently, K-water depends heavily on government funding rather than its own revenue for their operation, which was half of its total spending of 17.9 trillion Korean won (15.9 billion USD) in 2013. The report also points out that the K-water spends less efforts on improving the water distribution efficiency on the demand side by adjusting the fee for the consumers.

K-water also needs to work harder to raise the awareness of its initiative, both with the public and elites. K-water may have announced MOUs with other countries in the media, but it is not enough to demonstrate to the public the potential and how successful SWG development is. Fora project requiring significant investments, there is little information on the progress of the initiative other than from K-water sites and foreign reports written in English. In terms of elites or academics who want to develop the SWG further in Korea, there are academic societies dedicated to researching the SWG in Korea specifically. However, they do not seem to be updating publications or events in a timely manner to support interest. For K-water to really go for the global market it needs to work on how to build domestic support, so it will have a firm footing from which to pursue the initiative with stable funding and acknowledgement.

Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Changjin Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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