Cybersecurity: A Foundational Requirement for a Modern Water Utility

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Water is an essential commodity needed in every society. In fact, it is a basic need of life and an enabler of key industries like agriculture, power generation, construction, technology.

Due to this, the treatment, extraction and discharge of wastewater back to the environment by utility firms must be given adequate attention. In addition, a strong cybersecurity approach is necessary for the continued presence of clean water in every society.

The challenge

Due to the rapid advancement in technology all over the globe, so many water utility firms are already taking advantage of the benefits that technological devices offer in reducing operating costs and increasing efficiency.

Despite the benefits they offer, these digital technologies have also exposed water systems and critical infrastructures to cyber attacks. This is apart from other problems like such as ageing workforce, changing weather patterns, infrastructure decay and climate change that has adversely affected water systems and utility firms.

The consequences of these cyber threat on water systems are quite devastating. A single breach of any water organization is capable of leading to the following: production disruption, contamination, unintended discharge with negative environmental consequences, equipment failure, and interruption of service to the consumer.

Therefore, there is a need to ensure water quality, put an end to cybersecurity threats of water systems and adequately increase productivity.

Digital transformation in water systems

Already a new set of digital technologies with transformative potentials have been introduced into the market place to address some of these challenges.  In addition, so many water utility firms have started their digital transformation journey, thereby unlocking new capabilities and increased business value and insight.

Although this is a step in the right direction, there is a need to do more. There are so many potential security vulnerabilities that still need to be addressed. One of which is the cybersecurity dimensions of water networks.

Gone are the days when water utility firms can only rely on air gaps and simple perimeter defence to address outside threats. They must build an architecture that recognizes the perimeter and provide tools to address segmentation, access, abnormal behaviour, application performance, identity, and trust.

The 2018 America's Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA)

As a way to curb the devastating impact of cybersecurity in the US water system, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) was established in 2018. The law requires community water systems serving more than 3300 people to develop or update their risk assessments and emergency response plans, including Operational Technology (OT) cybersecurity.

The document also makes provision for some of the best practices and key approaches that must be used by water utility firms to build a robust or reliable foundation and ensure public health.

The major aim of this law is to maintain a cyber environment that encourages efficiency, innovation, and economic prosperity while promoting safety, security, business confidentiality, privacy, and civil liberties.

Conclusion

At the moment, water organization are faced with increased pressure to meet up with a rapidly changing environment. However,  a robust cybersecurity foundation is a key element that will protect critical water and wastewater assets as utilities embark on their modernization journey. Beyond digital transformation, there is a need to take advantage of intelligent water solutions in transforming utility firms. Utility firms must perform a thorough assessment of their systems and assets and understand their vulnerabilities, followed by devising a robust plan for ensuring cybersecurity throughout their digital implementation efforts.

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