Enrique Cabrera has been a member of the International Water Association (IWA) since 2002, has been a council member from 2012 to 2022, vice-president of the association for four years (2018-2022) and chairman of the board of IWA Publishing since 2013.
In addition, he has been a Professor at the Universitat Politécnica de Valencia since 1999 and has held the Chair of Fluid Mechanics since 2017.
He combines this work with consultancy work on numerous national and international projects in the efficient management and operation of urban water systems.
The International Water Association (IWA) is an open but orderly platform where both innovators and adopters of new technologies and approaches can generate creative friction. It is a place for dissemination, benchmarking and evidence. Its programmes develop research and projects focused on water and wastewater management solutions, organising world-class events that bring the latest science, technology and best practice to the water sector at large, and working to put water on the global political agenda and influence best practice in regulation and policy making through IWA's global membership.
First of all, could you tell us what motivated you to join IWA?
I felt that IWA was a good place to be in contact with professionals in the water sector and it has always been so. In fact, I have always
I started to take on responsibilities very early on, which has given me access to many working groups and ground-breaking research.
And how do you think the digitalisation process in the water management sector has been since you started your professional life until now?
I think it has been progressive, there have been several lines of work that have been converging and, together with the maturity of the sector, have led to this moment in which the climate is very suitable for progress and improvement in this sense. For example, operators have been digitising for more than 25 years with the first GIS and SCADA. Simultaneously and gradually, the use of the first mathematical models became popular, as well as greater and better advances in the processing capacity of computers, the possibility of cloud computing, etc. If we add to this adequate marketing, we are at the ideal moment to maintain lines of work for continuous digital improvement in the field of water networks.
Do you think that the term digital has suddenly arrived to denote something already known, but which was previously called something else, such as smart?
It's not really the same, because people don't perceive it in the same way, but they are very similar concepts. It has changed for example in that we now have new data aggregator platforms; these tools collect a lot of data, arrange it in an attractive way, so that it can be used for something useful and eye-catching. They generally run in the cloud and make it easy and affordable for almost anyone to use.
On the other hand, models used to be a complicated technology, distant for almost all users; now they can almost be built without much prior knowledge or experience. Data is now used for many things; it used to be collected, but little used, for very marginal applications, and gradually it is being applied to many more processes and tools. However, I believe that artificial intelligence processes, at least as applied to water networks, have not reached full maturity and still have some way to go.
What do you think of replacing mathematical models with sets of data series that are related to each other and obtain new forecasts?
Well, in reality these are also models, it's the same thing. But instead of a physical model, it's a statistical model, a black box. Because the equations of physics are not perfect, but I know how they work and they are always the same; whereas in models in which statistics are applied, the results will depend on the ability of those who build them to find relationships between variables, on the significance of these relationships and on the quality of the data used.
Do you think it is worth spending the time and resources to build a model in great detail?
In my opinion it is sometimes starting the house from the roof, because the first thing you should do is ask yourself what you want to do with the model or what you need to solve. The problem with water network models is that they are representations of systems that are very difficult to understand in detail because they are buried underground. Nowadays you can build a model with much less effort with the tools we have at our disposal, it is possible to have it in an hour, but then you will have to check how good that model is and if it fits properly or helps to solve the problem we have to tackle. But you always have to do a cost-benefit analysis.
In general, depending on the level of maturity of the operator, it is usually a worthwhile investment as it will improve the quality of service.
In your opinion, do studies to find the optimum point of information and detail needed to get a good enough model make sense?
I am not aware of any such public studies, but I am convinced that private companies are already carrying them out. In particular, the ones that have the most capacity to do it are software companies, because they have all the data of their users, but it will be internal research, to better understand the application of their products, and they are not going to publish it externally.
With respect to the level of detail expected from a model, it is clear that, if remote reading data for all meters in the network are incorporated, this can lead to a very reliable characterisation of the network behaviour. What is less clear is that such accuracy is really necessary.
The needs will depend on the level of service to be offered and the price of the service. If the service provided to customers is positioned as premium, it will be very important to use the latest technology available and opt for all the options it offers. But from a purely engineering point of view, sometimes such detailed knowledge is not necessary to operate the network optimally.
"Digitalisation has helped to become more efficient in the operation of networks, feeding back into their autonomous development".
Do you think there are external factors that have encouraged digitalisation, such as the increase in energy prices?
No, in the case of Spain and in the last year, which is when energy prices have soared, I believe that what has encouraged it most has been the injection of public money. And, on the other hand, digitalisation in itself has also helped to make the operation of the networks more efficient, feeding back into their autonomous development.
In your opinion, is it appropriate for the administration to collaborate with these natural incentives? Who do you think benefits the most?
It is very beneficial that the administration is committed to digitalisation. In Spain there is no central regulator, so the competences are atomised in the municipalities, making it more difficult to force global change. When we find ourselves in a natural monopoly like this one, where there are no incentives for continuous improvement, programmes such as the PERTE Water Cycle Digitalisation Programme serve to activate the sector, either as an opportunity to capture resources or to improve.
This benefit will depend a lot on how the projects are awarded. I am concerned that it will end up being a typical fund that is spent without a clear technical guideline, without a strategic vision, and I am concerned about the haste to execute this expenditure. If it is used for projects such as the 100% smart meters, which in places where they are very behind in digitisation is probably not the best way to tackle digitisation focused on solving problems, this risk is run. It is true that it will move money in the sector, but it will not have the full impact it could have had. Each project should be associated with a strategic digitalisation plan that includes objectives and an investment plan, requesting a timetable of actions to carry it out. This would be the ideal theoretical approach.
Do you consider that we have always been in a position of digital leadership in water in Spain? Why?
Spain has always been well positioned in water management. digitalisation of waterbecause of the existing concentration of companies and projects. We have always had state-of-the-art systems with technology and operation on a par with the best examples in other emblematic places in the world.
However, there is also the other side of the coin: we are more than 8,800 municipalities, with very fragmented management, in which it is not possible for all the technology to reach us. If we are compared with other countries such as the United Kingdom, where water management is grouped in only 10 companies, it is complicated to achieve the same development in all water supplies. We cannot compare, for example, Canal de Isabel II with a small town of 100 inhabitants, due to economies of scale. The latter will always be less advanced.
In Spain, globalisation has been good for us, because Spanish companies that had the know-how found it difficult to go abroad, simply because of communication difficulties, because we were perceived as a less advanced country just because we had a different accent when speaking English. But as the digital revolution is very digital, applications are often screens that can be easily translated, users do not look so much at the origin, which is less visible, as at the usefulness and capacity of the solution.
It has always been the case that the Anglo-Saxon has had a tinge of greater prestige, just for being native in this language, even within research groups, with equal capacities, but in recent years this difference has been diluted.
We must bear in mind that Spain is also a country that does not sell itself very well abroad. There are countries that, globally, are dedicated to positioning themselves as leaders in the water, but the quality of our professionals speaks for itself, and we will see if PERTE can give that definitive push.
"We are living on borrowed time, for example, in the exploitation of the aquifers, we are reaching almost 1,000 metres deep in some of them.
What do you think of digitalisation in irrigation, which accounts for 70% of water expenditure?
Digitalisation is positive in all areas, but the problem we have in Spain is more one of quantity of resources than of technology. In this sense, it is not so much a problem of irrigation, but of governance. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the modernisation of irrigation. Before, irrigation was done by hand and now it is all drip irrigation and, incidentally, this process may not be optimal from an energy point of view. Spanish irrigation is more efficient than in many other parts of the world.
With climate change there is going to be little water available and we have to learn to prioritise uses, all uses, which is a political problem. Just as there is not enough money to spend as much as we would like on education or health, there is not going to be enough water for everything.
We are living on borrowed time, for example, in the exploitation of aquifers, which are reaching a depth of almost 1,000 metres in some of them. The only thing that can be done, apart from being more efficient, is to prioritise uses and we have to accept this. On the coast there will be expensive water based on desalination, but in the interior there is not enough water for everything and we have to plan, we cannot have, in addition to irrigation, huge urbanisations, recreational uses, growth in all sectors and everything that is proposed, saying yes to every project.
Do you think digitalisation can help to decide which water uses are most needed, as well as to optimise processes?
Well, it may help to hide behind data, to justify a decision, but I think that in the end it has to be a decision taken by people. We can support it with data, but it will always be an ultimate decision of a political nature and one for which we should start educating citizens, because it is not going to be easy.
Right now, those who decide on the use and distribution of water are the Confederations, right?
Yes, they use resource allocation models, allocating the resource among those entitled to use it, not prioritising some uses over others in a clear and strategic way.
In the future, there should be clear mechanisms to be able to deny water to certain projects or to change the allocation already granted to certain uses. This is a very complicated issue, especially considering our citizens' relationship with water throughout history. We have historical rights that have played a very important role and that until now have been immovable.
We are a country with a long tradition in this regard, and in Valencia, for example, there is the Tribunal de las Aguas, with more than 1,000 years of history (the oldest in the world in operation), which is an example of how important water is for us. But precisely because of that importance we have to start thinking that we are not going to be able to maintain the current status quo and that we will have to re-imagine how to manage a resource that is going to become much scarcer.
We will have to start thinking outside the box, because what we have used so far is no longer useful.