Data in the Time of Water crisis

Faclon Labs has an IoT driven solution to solve our water woes

Written for IIT Tech Ambit, July 2019 issue. Link to article

India is in crisis. We have grown up much of our short lives listening to and learning about climate change and the consequences of global warming, but like much of human experience, we only begin to take action once faced with a problem.

The Strauss-Howe generational theory — a sociological idea often referred to as the Fourth Turning — talks about how every generation faces a significant ‘crisis’, be it war, an economic downturn or natural disaster. Today in 2019, our crisis is here, and it is water.

A dire situation

600 million people in India are currently facing high to extreme water stress. August — supposedly peak Monsoon time across the subcontinent — is upon us already, and with a few geographical exceptions, we have resigned ourselves to an uncomfortable truth: the rains have failed this year too. There is now an aggregate rainfall deficit of 21% and a deficit exceeding 50% in some Meteorological Dept. subdivisions in the North and North-West of the country.

Climate change is not the only reason behind this situation, however. We are slowly waking up to the fact that man-made mistakes and mismanagement has done a lot to bring us to the edge. A ground-breaking June 2018 report by NITI Aayog was the first to comprehensively assess the current situation of the country and deliver some hard facts to where we’re going if we don’t correct course. 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020. Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad already face an extremely dire situation, where municipal supplies to some areas have long ceased and millions of residents are forced to line up daily for water or pay exorbitant amounts for water from private tankers.

Chennai: a city in the quagmire

The situation in Chennai, in particular, is shocking, and no amount of coverage is too much, for it bears thinking about when the sixth-largest city in India faces its worst water crisis ever, a mere three years after its worst floods in a century (the 2015 Chennai Floods).

The four major reservoirs that cater to the city’s demands have practically run dry in just a year; essential services like hospitals, schools and businesses have found operation so difficult, they’ve been forced to shut down; everyday activities like washing utensils or clothes have to be done with much less water, or none at all. Water, being a state concern, has every chance of becoming political. Multiple disputes have broken out in recent years between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing of the River Cauvery, and the state has only just begun accepting water from Kerala to tide over the immediate effects of this shortage. Two million litres of water arrive every morning in Chennai by train — the city’s daily water usage is close to 820 million litres.

There are deep-rooted problems behind this shortage, and very soon the entire country will have to wake up to the very real possibility of a ‘Day-zero’ scenario — where an entire city runs out of water, like Cape Town in South Africa had desperately to avert. By 2030, India’s demand is projected to be almost double of current supply. In a conservative high-use scenario, 1180 BCM (Billion Cubic Metres) of demand is far beyond present availability of 695 BCM, and even below a total possible water supply of 1137 BCM. The knock-on effects are projected to be as high as a 6% loss in GDP, devastating for a young country with high aspirations, and a burgeoning desire for world-beating development to lift entire populations out of poverty.

CWMI: An attempt to bring order to chaos

The 2018 NITI Aayog report was sanctioned for the creation of a Composite Water Management Index, or CWMI which intends to “provide an annual snapshot of the water sector status and the water management performance of the different states and UTs in India”. The index was comprised of 9 themes, with 28 indicators for the same, covering groundwater and surface water restoration, and rural and urban water supply among others.

The findings of the report are interesting, and it is in light of this that the work of the featured start-up, Faclon Labs, assumes great significance.

According to the information provided by the CWC (Central Water Commission), the authors found that one of the biggest problems we face is the lack of water data. It goes on to say, “Data systems related to water in the country are limited in their coverage, robustness, and efficiency”. Firstly, detailed data about usage patterns and allocation, for critical sectors such as domestic and industrial use is only available in aggregate, and hence “lacks the level of detail required to inform policies and allocations”. Even more problematic is the reliability of the data currently possessed by policymakers and in the public domain — because of outdated methods of data collection and an un-updated database. An outrageous example from the 5th Minor Irrigation Census in 2017 is how “estimates on groundwater are mostly based on observation data from 55,000 wells, while there are 12 million wells in the country”. Compounding both issues is the fact that water in India is a state concern, as mentioned before. Data, if at all it exists, is in silos, with very little inter-state or centre-state coordination.

Photo by rade nugroho / Unsplash

The observant reader might have noticed something here — the potential for technology to come in and revolutionise the field is enormous. Till now, tech companies have shied away from public sector related infrastructure and social entrepreneurship, thanks to the perception that anything involving collaboration with state machinery is messy and comes with its inherent bureaucratic red-tape. The advent of 5G and easier integration of Internet-of-Things solutions in the Indian ecosystem, along with the Central Government’s desperate push for digital solutions and an embrace of technology driven by necessity, means there’s now an opportunity like never before.

Enter the Faclon

A case in point of a company that’s raced to capitalise on this opportunity is Faclon Labs. Started in Mumbai in 2016 by Rishi Sharma, Archit Naraniwal and Utkarsh Srivastava, they’ve developed a product that offers hardware and software solutions for water management, backed up by, in their words, an ‘I/O Sense IoT Suite’.

Sharma and Naraniwal are both IIT-Bombay Alumni, who worked at the global auditing and consultancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, for nearly a year, before quitting to start Faclon with Srivastava and former batchmate Ankit Parashar (Parashar has since left the company). This is one tech start-up where the IIT influence is clearly visible. Mechanical and Civil Engineering graduates respectively, they worked on a project in 2015 under CTARA, the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay. Tasked with developing a ‘water distribution schedule’, in the rural district of Parbhani, central Maharashtra, they realised quickly that the on the ground scenario was dismal, coming to the same conclusion that the NITI Aayog committee came to last year.

Without a well-structured, dynamic distribution system that drew on real-time data from various locations, the water supply was almost random. Demand and supply were manually mapped, outdated estimates. The result? A mismatch in water allocation with some areas receiving water only once a week for a few hours, or in some cases not for weeks together. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because cities under water stress today are going through the same misallocation and lack of reliable supply, because the pace of urban changes in water demand is so rapid that real-time monitoring is absolutely essential.

Based on their experiences in Parbhani, the team realised that before you could even think about generating a better water distribution schedule, you had to map the consumption and have reliable data backing it up. Barely able to do that in the 4-month duration, they understood that mapping was easier said than done. That became the premise of their company’s core offering.

IoT under the hood

Down to specifics: Faclon Labs’ primary B2C product is a prepaid water meter and valve that integrates real-time data collection and operability. It consists of a flow-meter, an RF-ID device and a valve. The meter contains a mechanical counter as well as a ‘pulsator’ for digital readings — from water level to pressure and flow rate. The RF-ID device is the brains of the operation. It controls the amount of water flow based on the limit for the day and can control the valve to shut off the water supply and then restart the next day. An ordinary automated water valve, you say? Not quite. Where IoT comes in, is the potential for precise monitoring and data collection, not only from this one valve but potentially every water outlet in a distribution system.

Prepaid water flow meter using IoT — Courtesy: Faclon Labs

According to the company, this ‘gateway device’ collects sensor data and sends it to remote cloud infrastructure using either GSM (4G wireless/WiFi) or GPRS, and is capable of multiple customizations due to its modularity. Their Internet-of-Things solution talks to LoRa nodes, using the LoRaWAN protocol, feeding into their backend software platform. Faclon accumulates and processes the real-time data, and provides custom analytics which it claims could be of high value to stakeholders like municipalities or even office buildings, residential complexes and educational institutions.

The applications of this minor, yet significant implementation of technology are many. Faclon says they’ve been using their predictive analytics to detect leaks, track supply and provide insights on local water consumption patterns. Currently, their devices and water management system have been implemented in the village of Ganeshpuri, 100 kilometres from Mumbai, as well as two hostels at IIT-B. Company media releases also claim their solution has been “deployed across 100-plus locations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai”.

Can IIT grads make it in the world of Business?

Despite an innovative product filling the lacuna of technology in a vital field, Faclon Labs faced big hurdles early on. Investors wanted something 100% tested and reliable, and had concerns regarding costing — water as a product does not offer great Return on Investment, said, Sharma. Installation was an issue too, because this being a sector that has seen little change in decades, authorities would be turned off if it took even more than 15 minutes, he said. A typical Engineering-graduate problem also came their way — they were too focused on product and needed to shift focus from R&D to business development, or the company would never see the light of day. It helped, therefore, that on inception they were taken on by thinQbate, a Mumbai-based start-up incubator. thinQbate typically invests Rs 15 lakh in exchange for a 5–12 per cent equity stake in the ventures it backs, and Faclon Labs, like their other ventures, currently works out of thinQbate premises.

A recent seed-funding round in January 2018, was led by Vish Sathappan, representing the investment arm of Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd (The Times Group), and had participation from Neev Angel Advisors and LetsVenture. Despite the seed amount being undisclosed, the funding has certainly served as a shot in the arm for the company, both in terms of being able to scale up product development and commercialisation efforts, but also in an upturn of the mood surrounding its prospects.

Where does Faclon Labs look to now for their big break, and their opportunity to create a real social impact? Indian cities might be giving us the answers themselves. Lack of maintenance of existing infrastructure, and inefficient water allocation strategies in Urban areas cause staggering losses of almost 40 per cent. Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, in a recent opinion piece strongly recommended a decentralised, but integrated water resource management and service delivery, with a key focus on water conservation, source sustainability, storage and reuse wherever possible, by involving the communities themselves. The availability of reliable and current data could only help manifold, this aim to reform our management of a lifegiving resource.

Technology driving India’s policy measures

Scarcely a month ago, the new government announced the establishment of the ‘Jal Shakti Mantralaya’, a bold integration of the erstwhile Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the former Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The result is the formation of a single new ministry focused on water, and this is a step to be lauded. The ministry has announced an ambitious plan to provide piped water connections to every household in India by 2024. This is a huge infrastructural move, involving laying massive new pipeline networks, having to deal with many times more wastewater, as well as a potential compounding of current problems like rapid depletion of groundwater, deterioration of local water bodies and leakage losses. Researchers at the Centre of Science and Environment, a public research and advocacy organisation in Delhi, think that the enormous carbon footprint generated, as well as the preference for land and infrastructure over water and community interests, mean that this is a bad move.

There is certainly a multitude of highly volatile factors to consider in developing a sustainable, large-scale water solution for India and Indian cities. But equally encouraging is that the establishment of such an initiative posits the possibility of integrating pioneering technology like this, to make our water distribution systems more sophisticated and efficient than any currently seen in the world. India has always been a country with unique challenges, and tackling them requires looking at a scale, efficiency and optimal utilisation of resources unlike anywhere else. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our ‘crisis’ is here, literally and figuratively. But our every step and plan from here on out will be accompanied by the constant drip-drip of the tap in the background.

Time, like water, is running out.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Pranav Krishnan

Student at UIUC, formerly IIT Kharagpur. Searching for the beautiful stories, the ones that make lives — and writing my own.