Corporate Responsibility

Can AI Help Solve the Global Water Crisis?

Headshot of blog author Julie Kae wearing a black blouse and sporting blonde shoulder-length hair.

Julie Kae

6 min read

As the world faces increasing water stress in the changing climate, what promises do massive new streams of data and waves of artificial intelligence hold for water’s future? What are the immediate benefits, what’s happening now, and what’s around the corner? What are the caveats?

Experts and innovators came together to answer these questions March 23 in a dynamic roundtable during the United Nations Water Conference in New York. We explored the promise of AI and technology to manage water and climate crises, and to learn how businesses, governments, and agencies can use new data insights and context to inform the most important decisions of our era.

The Chatham House roundtable was hosted by Qlik, a pioneer in data analytics, Vector Center, a leader in decision-grade intelligence for water and climate challenges, and SWAN, the Smart Water Networks Forum.

“We are on the edge of a new future, when AI, data analysis, and predictive intelligence have become essential tools for addressing the global, regional, and local water crises that threaten economies, supply chains, political stability, human equity, and environmental sustainability,” said J. Carl Ganter, CEO of Vector Center, who facilitated the session.

Rohit Adlakha, CTO of Vector Center, and Alon Halevy, Director at Meta Reality Labs Research & Facebook AI, noted that adoption of AI at scale is a given. But the future will be defined not as much by AI, but by the quality and context of the source data: How is the AI trained, who trains it, and most important, what questions do we need to answer?

Just ask ChatGPT to solve the world’s water crises — any output it generates will be biased — drawing on data sets that are skewed and limited by geography, sources, demographics, and context.

Key insights from the session and participants

AI’s role in predictive analytics, data aggregation, and collaboration

AI will play a vital role in managing water supplies, predicting shortfalls, and adapting to water crises, including:

  • Monitoring and managing water resources.

  • Predicting and mitigating the impact of water-related disasters.

  • Optimizing water treatment and desalination processes.

  • Solving complex patterns of water use, whether in developed urban centers or poverty-stricken rural regions.

  • Sophisticated modeling of water use priorities for agriculture, energy production, and urban systems.

  • Integrating AI in water management can provide transparency, accountability, trust, speed, and scalability that enables decision-makers to run alternative planning scenarios for resource allocation

The care and feeding of AI: An imperative for data democratization

AI has the potential to democratize access to expert knowledge and high-quality decision-making by leveraging human knowledge globally to tackle common problems. This can empower individuals, especially in regions that need it the most, by surfacing and distilling previously siloed knowledge and expertise. To make AI solutions effective and scalable, we need to shift from pure analytics to actionable intelligence that can be quickly applied in context and enable faster course correction.

However, access to data — and data sharing — remains a major obstacle to progress. Perverse incentives encourage companies and governments to protect key data sets that could, if shared, deliver insights that save lives, crops, and communities.

Democratizing data — and developing models for anonymized sharing and collaboration — is essential, urgently, for building robust data sets that can be processed by AI and presented in ways where people, businesses, organizations, and governments can tackle their most complex challenges. Sophisticated and transparent processes for data sharing across public and private sectors have the potential to redefine real-time and historic data as a “digital public good” for transforming society.

Making data come alive with insights from Qlik and Vector Center

During the session, Cody Pope, Vector Center’s chief innovation officer, demonstrated the firm’s "Day Zero Risk Index," which contextualizes the interplay of structural and social risks in key major cities globally. The index analyzes a matrix of physical, infrastructure, and governance indicators using AI to spot strategic trends, while also calculating how news and policy decisions impact water security. “Local water problems are becoming global crisis as climate pressures can spark regional and global conflict,” Pope said.

For example, take the American West where drought conditions have been worsening for years. Water scarcity has become a dramatic, systemic challenge with many layered inputs and pressures. With the help of Qlik visualizations, Vector Center can close the gap between data and action by revealing previously unseen trends and delivering decision-grade intelligence to support policy, business, investment, and water-use plans that will affect the region for generations.

Screenshot of a Qlik Sense dashboard showing groundwater data

Beyond bias: Building trust and collaborative intelligence

  • Even while technology is transcending borders, there is still an ethos of trust and communication that needs to get built. We also need collaborative intelligence, where humans complement each other in terms of creativity, leadership, teamwork and of course, speed and scalability.

  • Bias has to do with the data that that these systems are exposed to. Whatever is your favorite bias, these things get baked into the system. The good thing about AI systems, at least, is that you can fix that by exposing the system to more balanced data.

  • With new AI technologies, we will be able to fuse disparate data sets much easier than we could in the past. This is where the cutting-edge research is taking place. We're not there yet, but there is potential to look at all these data points and reconcile them in ways we never imagined.

Run fast before running dry

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to define water's future through the collaborative and constructive use of AI and data. But time is running out to shift a dangerous course.

Join us to learn more.

Roundtable discussion leaders

Julie Kae - VP Sustainability and DE&I, Executive Director of

J. Carl Ganter - CEO, Vector Center; Managing Director Circle of Blue

Shirley Ben-Dak - Senior Advisor, SWAN (Smart Water Networks)

Alon Halevy, Director at Meta Reality Labs Research & Facebook AI

Robert Kirkpatrick - Milken Institute

Sulagna Mishra - Scientific Officer, World Meteorological Organization, United Nations

Rohit Adlakha - CTO, Vector Center; past CDO and Head of AI, WIPRO; Member, World Economic Forum Global Future Council on AI for Humanity

Cody Pope - CIO, Vector Center; Expert, World Economic Forum Water Community

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to define water's future through the collaborative and constructive use of AI and data.

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