There is a global consensus on the vital role of water in the proper functioning of ecological, social and economic systems, and it is therefore a priority to ensure the widest possible uptake of modern digital technologies across the water utilities sector, from water resource protection to water services. A research conducted by the Digital Business Unit of Századvég Konjunktúrakutató at the end of 2023 revealed that the essential prerequisite for the penetration of these solutions is the mainstreaming of digitisation aspects in resource allocation, investment and development decisions, as well as in the economical and conscious industrial and residential user practices.


The research aimed, among other things, to identify the most important challenges facing the Hungarian water utility sector and the digital solutions that could best support their mitigation and elimination.

The main challenges in Hungary’s water utilities sector

From the 1990s to the present day, the quantity of water sold has fallen significantly (to less than half) as a result of falling consumption. This creates problems of capacity utilisation and energy use, as systems designed and built to meet higher water demands are currently operating at significantly lower capacity utilisation.

In Hungary piped water supply is practically complete, but the drinking water and wastewater networks and related facilities are in need of major modernisation and renovation.

About 51.8% of the wells belonging to water utility systems with their own water base are located on vulnerable water bases, and arsenic, boron, fluoride, iron, manganese and ammonium ion and its oxides, nitrates and nitrites, can cause drinking water quality problems.

Since 2015, the number of people working in the sector has been steadily decreasing, and it is also difficult to find new staff in this field. Few young people apply to take the place of older employees who are less and less familiar with modern technical and IT skills, and to take up vocational training and university/college programmes related to the sector.

The sector is facing funding problems. Due to the lack of funds, necessary maintenance and renovations are often not carried out, and the investments that are realised are mostly aimed at the renewal and replacement of physical infrastructures in order to ensure and maintain adequate water supply, understandably pushing digitisation and automation developments into the background.

The research shows that service providers pay relatively little attention to identifying and exploring the potential of digital developments, as a significant part of their capacity is tied up in dealing with day-to-day problems, and they consider that such investments are made after infrastructure developments are long overdue, rather than in preparation for and in support of them.

The entire water sector is struggling with data problems, and there is currently no adequate data set and thus no data management, which could, however, greatly support the decisions of service providers.

Which digital technologies best support the development of the sector?

The research shows that, as in other industries, the consistent introduction of digital technologies could trigger revolutionary changes in the water utility sector, contributing to safer and more efficient services, more (environmentally) conscious water use and thus improving the perception of the businesses concerned.

In water utilities, digitisation is usually based on reliable, continuous and automated data collection in the right place, in the right quantity and content. Therefore, sensors and IoT solutions for collecting and transmitting data could be the digital enabling technology for water utility developments.

Innovative data collection, processing and visualisation solutions can help to further exploit the potential of IoT technology. Continuously developing remote sensing/imaging technologies can support data collection. For example, satellites and drones, used separately or in combination, can provide extremely useful data for mapping water resources, measuring water flows and network planning.

Cloud-based technology solutions are a natural and useful complement to IoT technology. Cloud technology can provide a dynamic IT environment that is reliable, of high service quality and availability to the digital water ecosystem.

Most digital solutions in the water utility sector would not work without reliable mobile networks: data from installed IoT sensors are typically transmitted via mobile networks to central servers, where, in addition to real-time analysis and visualisation, databases are continuously developed and analysed.

Built on real-time data collection and processing using the IoT infrastructure, a range of advanced digital solutions can serve different uses and purposes within the sector. The digital technologies most commonly used in international practice:

  • big data and artificial intelligence (AI) applications for data processing and analysis,
  • digital twins-based modelling for predictive maintenance,
  • blockchain solutions for reliable tracking of infrastructure elements and maintenance activities.

Big data and AI solutions help to unlock hidden patterns in big datasets, transform them into information and use them. These solutions are most likely to contribute to the operation of water utilities in the following cases:

  • real-time detection and prediction of pipe bursts in water networks,
  • automated assessment of network devices,
  • using wastewater treatment plants as a forecasting system,
  • in case of proactive wastewater and sewage alarms,
  • support for proactive asset management,
  • predict consumer needs and behaviour.

Digital twins integrate all available data into a digital simulation model to better understand the system, support decision making and predict key processes. Their application can significantly contribute to the data-based preparation of operation, maintenance and development decisions.

For utility use, blockchain technology is an excellent way to reliably track assets, materials and inventories, but also to track the fulfilment of maintenance contract obligations.

In which value chain elements does digitisation play the biggest role?

Our research shows that in current international practice, digital technologies play the largest role in the operation of distribution networks. Digital technologies enable real-time monitoring and detection of water loss in the network. In addition, digital water flow metering systems allow water utility companies to accurately monitor demand and water consumption.

State-of-the-art digital monitoring systems provide a holistic view of the entire network, service outages, network water losses, suspected illegal water use, fraud probabilities, asset condition, breakdowns, repair and maintenance needs, and the status of repair and maintenance works.

A primary success criterion for the design of such a system is that an appropriate digital measuring device is installed at each critical point. This can be followed by the implementation of an appropriate data integration and data processing solution. Experience shows that the need for digital improvements at distribution network operators is usually triggered by the problem of water loss in the network. For an ageing complex water infrastructure system, conventional means can only address this challenge with very limited results. However, digital solutions are a fast and cost-effective way to optimise the efficient use of scarce resources.

What are the most important security and cyber defence considerations?

In addition to the individual, organisational and societal benefits of digitisation, being vulnerable to technology also brings risks.

As the operation of digital systems is highly dependent on the functionality of sensors, data transmission and the control system, a technical failure of any of these can result in the entire system being brought down. In a networked digital system, even the failure of a non-critical infrastructure element or service can easily cause major disruptions to service. For example, the loss of internet service can make key monitoring and management functions unavailable.

In critical infrastructure, the possibility of an external attack, cybercrime or cyberwarfare must be considered, just as human negligence or inattention can trigger an avalanche of processes in a fully automated system.

Supporting a possible digitisation process with security measures based on appropriate cybersecurity research is therefore of particular importance. The research shows that the safest risk management is to keep critical control systems in water and wastewater systems off the open internet, eliminating many of the most serious cybersecurity risks. It is also essential to protect customer data in order to maintain trust in the service provider and to prevent data leaks (GDPR Consequences), which could potentially be a significant financial burden.

• Methodology

The following methodological elements were applied in the preparation of the study:


I. Secondary sources

  • To analyse the situation, describe the field, identify national and international trends and digitisation solutions in the industry:
    • processing national and international strategies, legislation and relevant development policy documents,
    • analysis of data from international and domestic secondary sources (case studies, textbooks, journals, conference publications, statistical publications, company, tender and international databases [OECD, Eurostat, etc.], other databases and research).


II. In-depth interviews

  • In relation to the elements of the water utility value chain, in-depth interviews were conducted with experts in the field and with managers of ICT companies offering digital technology solutions in the industry, the experience of which was also used to prepare the study.