Water sector industry & engineering: demands & needs for Hydroinformatics

Water sector industry & engineering: demands & needs for Hydroinformatics

The evolution of human activities, in the foreground of climate changes and growing earth population, induces situations which are more and more complex to manage. The sustainable development and, above all, management of water resources within the context of aquatic environment represents today and will represent within foreseeable future a major challenge for post-industrial economy and social organisation. The essential aim of such management is to avoid, if possible or at least minimize, the risks of crises in water supply and waste water treatment for population, in water scarcity for irrigation, in management of consequences of floods, etc...

Initiated in Europe more than 20 years ago, Hydroinformatics emerges as the central element for the progress of modelling activities and management of capacities on the theoretical side as well as in the operational field. The Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) extend deeply the potential of the tools and at the same time, modify the engineering activities in the water field. The development of the ICT allows for synergetic use of simulation tools and communication technologies within single methodological approach dealing with physical, social and economical aspects. The only possible way to manage succesfully the problems evoked above implies consensual views and actions of decision makers and users (population, governments, administration, elected bodies, NGOs), on one hand, and executive body: engineers, on the other hand. The very idea of the Hydroinformatics is precisely this: to make available and intelligible the results of engineering thinking to decisions makers and, other way round, to make clear for engineers what are social requirements that they are to satisfy. Theoretically this can be done thanks to the ICT but in practice it means that there is the need, within administrations, within consulting institutions, within contracting enterprises for professionals who understand this and have the knowledge and ability necessary to implement such, still new, vision. In short there is a need for “ferment”, for catalyser, for engineering professionals who not only know how to build a dam or water supply system but also are able to talk to the outside world and modify by their ideas their own surrounding professional environment. And this within the context of European Union reality, i.e. international context regulated by common framework and interests.

According to all analysis and visions, the intensive demand of Hydro-Informatics educated engineers and managers in public services and private sector will continue for more than 5 decades (Cf. Implementation of the European Water Framework Directive). In this context, the specialization and the training of executive engineers and managers is the key issue for this needed progress. The European knowledge, know-how and good practices in sustainable water management and Hydroinformatics, although not always perfect, are nevertheless nowadays references and constitute the central elements of a technical common culture that is already widely requested and will be more and more in demand in the future.

Hydroinformatics – links with Research and Technological Development

What is Hydroinformatics?

The term was introduced by Prof. M.B. Abbott in 1992 and the inventor of the then neologism defined it as the integration of computational hydraulics and of artificial intelligence. Computational hydraulics is the fusion of numerical methods of applied mathematics, hydrodynamics and hydraulics, the latter being originally very much experimental science. At these beginnings it meant that numerical simulation and modelling is integrated with artificial intelligence in single tools. The meaning has evolved since. Probably the most consensual definition would be today that Hydroinformatics is about making the best use of information technologies to manage water in the environment. The term “manage” is used here in very wide sense: certainly not limited to ordinary understanding of “water management practice”. Indeed, management here means dealing with whole gamut of information, from very engineering subjects on one hand, such as: data collection, measurement, interpretation, such as design of river basin management strategies including civil engineering structures, such as modelling (simulation) of river, groundwater and coastal flows and water quality to forecast natural events (floods) as well as the impacts of human activities. On the other hand it is concerned with information management: the time when the society left engineer with the decisions concerning water problems is over. Decision makers today are numerous, out of engineering profession and they cannot be asked to understand engineering language or argumentation. Inversely, the engineering profession is still very far from understanding of what is desirable to the decision makers (citizens, elected bodies, NGOs, etc...).

Hydroinformatics gathers a range of tools that, based on information technologies, may be used to explain exactly what these various groups wish and how engineers can realise these wishes and, especially, what various impacts of realisation could be. Moreover, these tools allow for participation of stakeholders in the process of execution of the projects and there are examples of such participation in recent years. Thus Hydroinformatics is also about movement, flow of information, not only about its content; it is in the heart of the process of communicating information. Here we come to the meaning of another term of the above definition, i.e. “…the best use of information technologies to manage…”.What means the word best? We enter the domain of social rightness, and also the ethics, in general sense as well as of engineering ethics. Thus Hydroinformatics became a technology in itself, very specific technology that asks for specific state of mind (or culture) and for specific knowledge.

How the Hydroinformatics and, consequently the EuroAquae Project is related to the Research and Technology Development? Formally the EuroAquae Project, as part of the first Erasmus Mundus programme is not concerned about research. It is a Master of Science course, not a PhD programme. Nevertheless, by its specific mobility character it creates ipso facto the inspiration towards research on Hydroinformatics basic science and technologies. It does so through the links between the teaching-research teams of 5 universities, on the one hand because of personal exchanges among researchers-teachers, on the other hand through competitive thinking: teachers at each partner’s university have to face mature master students coming from other universities carrying in their minds subjects and problems that are unsolved, that they met as research subjects on their way, that have not been solved so far. At the same time the teachers and researchers of each university have open access to full and detailed lecture notes of their colleagues form other partner institutions and this is considerable incitation to compare the research subjects or unsolved problems from other places with their own perspectives. Link to the Technology Development is very different. It has two specific facets. First is the process, described above, of exchange of information and incitation of each partner to pull its own teaching and education at the same level of technological information diffusion as others.

Thus the latest technological innovations and innovative approaches of Hydroinformatics are being propagated as taught subjects across the Europe through 5 partner Universities. The second facet is the one of the 4th semester internship of graduating students and also the professional activity of alumni employed by European water sector industry after graduation. It is very much interactive phase. On one hand the students and alumni are learning a lot about technologies used in real life. On the other hand they are bringing into the industry many revolutionary ideas and knowledge of a number of most recent or undergoing the research technological developments learned in several European universities. Although they are entering leading European companies in order to learn, there are two aspects of which the EuroAquae alumni are carriers and that are understood only by few managers.

  • Most of professionals employed by industry simply have no time to follow the technological developments going on and thus apply routine ways. An example is the use of market-available software codes for simulation of hydraulics and hydrological events. Once acquired, such codes may be used for decades by a consulting company without modification or improvement. EuroAquae Alumni arrive with ideas that there are limitations to the application of various codes, that new developments have been made, that introduction of technologically new tools is good investment and brings in competition advantage. Thanks to their professional profile they are able to promote such ideas.
  • EuroAquae alumni gain insight into the fact that when the technology (Hydroinformatics) is concerned one must think in terms, evoked above, of going beyond frontiers of civil engineering or environmental engineering. During their EuroAquae years, they were taught, and in majority they retained, that the development of technology follows user requirements. The users are understood here in a wide sense: coming not only from engineering sciences but also from all domains related to water, from chemistry, biology, ecology and up to social and political sciences concerned with our basic resource. And the companies caring for their competitive advantage should push the developments of pluridisciplinary technology in synergy with information management. EuroAquae alumni’s profile is again a ferment that makes such thinking more common and popular within companies and thus helps technological development.