Xylem's office space in Westchester County, New York.

Xylem: Bringing Safe and Reliable Water to a Thirsty World

This story was produced by the WIRED Brand Lab for Empire State Development

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about the safety of the water they use every day. It’s there when it’s needed, clean and clear and coming out of a nearby tap or faucet. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

“Water challenges are happening everywhere, and many are going to get much worse,” says Jay Iyengar, Chief Innovation and Technology Officer of Xylem, a company that helps address some of the world’s most pressing water problems.

While the quest for safe and reliable water stretches to every corner of the globe, the journey often begins in the leafy village of Rye Brook, NY. It is there where the scientists and researchers at Xylem — the name is derived from the tissue in vascular plants which transports water and nutrients from the roots to the stems and leaves — use a combination of cutting-edge technology and advanced data analytics to enable more efficient, resilient, and sustainable water and wastewater management.

Xylem benefits immensely from its locale, which affords access to an incredible talent base of scientists and researchers from leading companies and academic institutions both within the New York metropolitan area as well as the larger Northeast corridor.

While New York-based, the work and worldview of Xylem is designed to improve the planet. Access to safe water and sanitation improves health and helps prevent the spread of infectious disease. It means reduced child and maternal mortality rates, and increased educational opportunities. Simply put: Clean water leads to a better life. “Water issues are at the core of human survival,” Iyengar says.

In many areas, however, water delivery and management systems are unsanitary, leaky, polluted by heavy metals, or can’t deliver enough supply to support demand. By 2025, roughly 25% of the world’s population is expected to live in places that don’t have a clean and reliable water supply, including 14 of the world’s 20 megacities. In 2015, for instance, Brazil’s São Paulo, a megacity of 20 million, turned off its water supply for 12 hours a day, forcing businesses to shut down. Similarly, many of the 21 million residents of Mexico City don’t have full-time access to clean and reliable water.

For Iyengar, these needs aren’t just abstract issues. As child in India, her family had just a few hours of available water per day. “Water issues have always been part of my DNA,” she says.

How One NY Company Is Solving Water

New York State-based company Xylem is bringing safe and reliable water to a thirsty world.

LEAKY PIPES

One of the first challenges of water management is dealing with aging pipes and seals. Xylem CEO Patrick Decker estimates that some 25% to 60% of water produced by utilities gets lost before it reaches a faucet or tap. Inaccurate metering and billing for the water that does arrive tear into the financial health of public utilities.

Xylem hopes to fix these many leaks through intelligent sensors and monitoring equipment. Its smart metering and advanced infrastructure analytics technology can identify infrastructure problems early, across multiple pieces of equipment or an entire network, enabling water managers to continuously monitor operations and equipment. Proactive water management allows managers to get ahead of trouble, whether through predictive maintenance or dealing with sewage and storm water overflows during a storm surge.

Embedded sensors in the pipes and a monitoring network also test water flow information in real time. They can even detect things like excessive nitrates and phosphates. Such conditions can lead to algal blooms, which can cause blockages in filters and create odors in treated water.

Ultimately, water managers must shift their mind-set from reactive to preventive, says Chief Marketing Officer Joseph Vesey. Expensive emergency interventions – such as quickly patching aging infrastructure, water-quality alerts, or scrambling to provide safe water during a flood management – will be replaced with data-driven continual maintenance.

Xylem employees working.

EYES ON THE WORLD

Xylem understands the benefit of a supportive community — it has received major grants and tax credits from New York State, allowing it to create hundreds of new jobs — and how that boost can ripple outward. Great partnerships can spark great change. While Xylem is at its heart a water technology company, “we’re also committed to creating social and economic value to the communities we serve,” says Vesey.

Chief among these is addressing the “walk for water,” a laborious and sometimes life-crushing daily process around the world. In many places, particularly in Asia and Africa, people (typically women) must walk several miles a day just to collect water. In a study of 25 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, UNICEF estimated that women spend 16 million hours collecting water each day. The result is billions in lost economic opportunities.

Water is also heavy, which can lead to physical injury from constant lifting and carrying heavy loads. The World Health Organization recommends 20-50 liters of water per person per day for drinking, cooking, and washing. That amounts to hauling between 44 and 110 pounds of water for each household member, which can result in strained backs, shoulders, and necks.

Access to proper sanitation also means reduced risk of sexual violence and increased safety as women and girls do not have to go to remote, dangerous places to relieve themselves.

Understanding the political, social, and economic context of water issues of these regions that are so far removed from the U.S. is critical. “It’s not just about developing technology to meet our customers’ needs, but also adopting that to their budgetary and social constraints,” Iyengar says. “We have to solve both the technical problems, as well as the practical problems.”

Xylem Watermark, the company’s corporate citizenship program, is key. It helped build more than 150 AquaTowers and taught communities around the world about water health and hygiene. AquaTowers can produce 10,000 liters of clear water per day, enough to sustain more than 1,000 people. The AquaTower filters out bacteria, protozoa, viruses, pathogens, and other contaminants greater than 0.01 micron, producing clean drinking water.

One recent win: Five rural schools in Siem Reap Province of Cambodia now have clean water access for the first time. Over the course of five days in June, AquaTowers and hygiene education were provided to primary and secondary schools that only had access to untreated, contaminated well water, causing many to suffer from waterborne illnesses. Now, more than 5,000 people have access to clean water.

The company can help avert smaller-scale disasters, too. Xylem’s tech experts were on hand to engineer the pumping system that helped free the Thai youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave this summer.

CHANGING NEEDS FOR A CHANGING CLIMATE

All of these water demands are made worse by climate change, which will intensify risks associated with water availability and quality.

“Climate change will create more extreme weather events and cause incredible stress on the water infrastructure,” says Clint Wilder, a senior editor at Clean Edge, a cleantech research and strategy firm. “A ‘500-Year-Flood’ now comes every five years. We often worry about water scarcity, but flooding can pollute drinking water, which is just as bad.”

Catastrophic weather events place enormous storm overflow stress on water and sewer networks throughout the world. To this end, Xylem also produces technology that treats wastewater more efficiently and helps cities cope with severe flooding and other water-related consequences of climate change.

Ultimately, says Vesey, Xylem must work closely with policymakers around the world in order to create resilient communities that have access to critical water supplies and services, no matter the circumstance. Droughts and floods, both manmade and natural, threaten human lives and property and will continue to do so. In the next few decades, water will become increasingly scarce as the world’s population grows and moves into urban areas.

The only way to meet these challenges, Vesey says, “is to treat water with respect. It is an incredibly powerful life force.”

New York State is changing the world, by supporting hometown companies like cleantech innovator Xylem, which is tackling some of the planet’s most pressing water issues.

 

Visit: esd.ny.gov/cleantech 
Call: (518)292-5200
Email: [email protected]