Tech giant IBM has become a leader in demonstrating real-world applications of blockchain technology. The company has already implemented blockchain-based solutions to track food supply chains and to ensure ethically sourced minerals.
IBM continues to collaborate with a number of leading organizations to solve complex business challenges through its blockchain network. Announced today, IBM Research is partnering with The Freshwater Trust (TFT), a nonprofit working to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems, and SweetSense Inc., a provider of low-cost satellite connected sensors, to pilot blockchain and IoT technologies for monitoring groundwater usage in one of the largest and at risk aquifers in North America.
The University of Colorado at Boulder will provide additional research support for this project, which is also being jointly funded by the Water Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The project’s scientists and engineers will demonstrate how the blockchain and remote IoT sensors can accurately measure groundwater usage transparently and in real-time. The sensors will transmit water extraction data to orbiting satellites and then to the IBM blockchain platform hosted in the IBM Cloud. The blockchain will record all data exchanges or transactions made in an append-only, immutable ledger. Smart contracts will also be used once transactions are automatically executed when the conditions are matched.
The group will pilot the system in northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, often referred to as the “nexus of California’s statewide water system.” The river delta covers 1,100 square-miles, providing water to the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. It also supports dozens of legally protected fish, plant and animal species. Furthermore, nearly 75% of this land is used for agriculture.
Based on a research project in Kenya with USAID, the Millennium Water Alliance and other partners, we are now applying our expertise in building decision support systems for water management for surface and groundwater data aggregation, workflow optimization and analytics to address similar challenges in California. With the addition of the blockchain, we can bridge critical trust and transparency gaps making it possible to build a robust, scalable and cost-efficient platform for managing precious groundwater supplies anywhere in the world”, said Dr. Solomon Assefa, Vice President, Emerging Market Solutions and Director for IBM Research, Africa.
The collaboration between the organizations began in response to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was signed into California law in 2014. SGMA mandated the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), local groups that are responsible for ensuring that regional groundwater supplies are sustainably managed. The GSAs are responsible for developing and implementing a plan to make their local groundwater usage sustainable by 2040.
In California and in the Central Valley, one of the biggest impacts on our river conditions is agriculture. This is a massive agricultural region that is severely groundwater stressed. This issue was brought to attention in California when a multi-year drought resulted in an impact of over $3 billion to the agricultural economy. California then passed the SGMA, which for the first time will regulate groundwater pumping. Now, however, the State of California is trying to determine how to share communal resources. As a non-profit, we are trying to support reaching these goals,” Alex Johnson, Freshwater Fund Director with TFT, told me.
A Blockchain For Farmers, Financers And Regulators
Throughout the pilot, a web-based dashboard will be available to farmers, financers and regulators, allowing all parties to monitor and track the use of groundwater. This will also help demonstrate how sustainable pumping levels can be achieved through the trading of groundwater use shares in the State of California. Individual users who require groundwater amounts beyond their share cap will be able to “purchase” groundwater shares from other users who do not require all of their supply at a market-regulated rate.
According to Nathan Wangusi, computer scientist for IBM Research, Africa, researchers are developing a concept for a “groundwater credit,” which will allow farmers to trade water sources amongst each other.
The blockchain allows for visibility of water extraction and keeps a tight ledger on this, while helping with transparency and the ability to trade assets. We are now developing a groundwater credit, which is an asset-based token that represents an amount of water that a user has rights to. This is similar to an environmental credit. For example, we currently have a project that uses plastic recycling as a tokenized credit that can be traded on a blockchain platform.”
For example, if a strawberry farmer is planning to take the season off to prepare for an organic crop the following harvest, they can trade or sell water credits on the blockchain to another farmer. Or, if due to a particularly dry season a winery realizes it will need additional ground water to avoid losing the vintage, the vintner can purchase additional water shares, without negatively impacting the aquifer.
In addition to blockchain, the sensor technology provided by SweetSense is an important element for monitoring groundwater supplies.
By remotely monitoring groundwater use via our sensors, we’re able to help improve and maintain sustainable access to water supplies for people, farmers, and livestock. The work we’re doing in Africa is directly translatable to California, said Evan Thomas, CEO of SweetSense and Mortenson Chair of Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. Our research team at the University of Colorado will assist in modeling groundwater use through the sensor data and satellite detected rainfall and weather correlations.”
SweetSense is currently monitoring groundwater for over a million people via satellite networks in Kenya and Ethiopia and plans to scale to 5 million by the end of the year.
Just The Beginning
While this pilot is an early example of the potential of these technologies, the teams behind the project also view it as a huge opportunity for future success.
“We are operating in a free market space and the regulations and requirements for ground water stability are only now being decided by local jurisdiction in California. Other western states are far behind, though. We view this as an opportunity to demonstrate how things can work if you apply them to a system with technologies like these,” said Johnson of TFT.
Explaining blockchain technology to all of the parties involved is still a challenge, however.
“We have to explain to explain what blockchain is, why it provides security and enough transparency where it can be used for compliance. We need to demonstrate how this can help farmers have a more resilient aquifer to pump water from, while having the flexibility to trade amongst their neighbors if a drought occurs,” said Johnson.
Furthermore, the success of this pilot is highly dependent on the technologies involved.
The future success of these sustainability plans hinges on being able to track and report groundwater use, and likely will also require a robust way to trade groundwater shares as well” added Johnson. “Our strategic intent is to harness new technologies to develop a system that makes getting groundwater more sustainable, collaborative, accurate and transparent process, which is why we are using the blockchain. We now have the project team and funding to do it, and a strong network of partners in the region that are open to an initial testing and building phase.”