The use of modern digital technologies in water management is an important driver for obtaining better data for assessing the status of water bodies and their development. The evaluation and interpretation of these data are the basis for the development and assessment of water protection measures, public information and environmental policy recommendations. As a federal authority, UBA collects very little water data itself, but receives most of it from the federal states and uses it to assess the nationwide water status.
Data on important nutrients and pollutants from selected groundwater and surface water monitoring sites are submitted to UBA by the federal states on the basis of an administrative agreement. In addition, UBA uses data provided by the federal states for official reporting on the implementation of various water-related directives, such as the EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) or the EU Nitrate Directive (91/676/EEC). These data are only a part of the water management data available in the federal states, counties and municipalities.
In addition to the description of the status quo, model-based projections and the data required for them will play an important role in the future, especially in order to be able to counter the effects of climate change, demographic changes and the increasing pressure of use on water bodies with suitable measures at an early stage.
"Sensor web" as a building block for automated data collection, "artificial intelligence" as a method for evaluating and interpreting environmental data and for pattern recognition, or the application and intersection of high-resolution remote sensing data are just a few of the many technological approaches that will become increasingly important in the field of water management in the future. The comprehensive provision of water status data in a manner appropriate to the target audience is also a challenging task for the future. UBA is actively involved in the introduction and application of modern IT procedures in water protection.
Progressive digitalization will significantly change the way tasks are performed, the way data is handled and used, and existing organizational structures. This process has already begun. The activities to shape this change are extremely diverse at federal, state and municipal level as well as among companies and consumers. These processes of change are summarized in the water industry under the keyword "Water Management 4.0". UBA has had the central challenges investigated in the study "Water Management 4.0".
The political framework for shaping digitalization in the area of environmental policy is set by the Federal Government's Environmental Digital Agenda. The agenda contains a package of measures with which digitization can be designed in a climate-friendly way, used for prosperity and competitiveness, social justice and an intact environment. The agenda contains more than 70 concrete measures. Package IV, entitled "Environmental Policy 4.0", is particularly relevant for water management administrations. With this package, the federal government wants to strengthen the environmental administration. A center of excellence for satellite remote sensing and sensor technology as well as an application laboratory for artificial intelligence and big data are to provide support as service providers in the use and analysis of data. Access to environmental data is to be facilitated by an environmental and nature conservation information system for Germany (Umwelt.info).
UBA is already setting up the application laboratory for artificial intelligence and big data as well as Umwelt.info.
The draft of the National Water Strategy presented in June 2021 by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), which aims to establish sustainable water management in Germany by 2050, also contains many requirements relating to digitization processes in the action programme. Not only technical challenges are addressed, but also topics such as the recruitment of skilled staff, further training and cross-administrative data management.
The latter point is particularly important for UBA as a higher federal authority, since we always use water data from the federal states for national reporting, international reporting obligations and evaluations, and there is a clear need for optimization in many areas of this data provision.
In order to identify these deficits, UBA carried out a research project entitled "Analysis and strategic further development of reporting processes in national and European water protection". The project examined the efficiency and timeliness of water management reporting processes between the federal and state governments and developed proposals for further development. One result of this project was also the recommendation to revise the technical infrastructure of water management at UBA.
A follow-up project entitled "FIS Water & Soil", which is currently being carried out, is now to implement the recommendations in practice. It is intended to completely reorganize the data management for water status data at the UBA and consolidate it from a professional and technical point of view. The overarching goal is a significant improvement in the area of process control from data provision, quality assurance, data retrieval and aggregation to the final product (dataset, map, web service, EU report). For this purpose, the data on rivers, lakes, groundwater and soil, which have so far been kept in separate systems, will be transferred to a uniform IT system that is based on the architecture guideline for federal IT, is oriented to technically up-to-date standards and is developed exclusively on the basis of free software. The system will have links to the new information portal Umwelt.info, the application laboratory for artificial intelligence and big data as well as to other data-related projects of UBA. The aim is to provide transparent and comprehensive data for the public, policy-makers and the scientific community.
The technical possibilities associated with digitalization in water management also bring challenges and restrictions. These must be considered when introducing new digital processes and applications.
This includes aspects of data protection and the availability of data from different authorities. Not all data required for water protection are uniformly available. For example, some federal states do not provide information on measuring points (drinking water wells) which they classify as critical infrastructure. In addition, data on agricultural land management is generally not freely available - not even for federal authorities - in view of the protection of personal data. In addition, there are very different legal regulations in the federal states regarding access to and ownership of data as well as their subsequent use. Some authorities make water management data available in a very user-friendly and up-to-date manner. Frequently, these data are only made available on request and not proactively as machine-readable data sets in standard formats on official platforms. The insufficient technical standardization in the area of data management between administrations is a major obstacle to the implementation of comprehensive digital administrative processes. The technical infrastructures and the competences for operating these systems also vary greatly at federal, state and municipal level, and there is a lack of qualified IT-staff in many administrations.
Overall, the opportunities of digitalization outweigh the risks mentioned. So far, the potential of digitization in water management has only been used to a limited extent. UBA is committed to continuing the development of existing approaches and to supporting and shaping new digitization initiatives. The legal framework will have to be further developed and inter-administrative data management and the exchange of data will have to be harmonized and standardized to a greater extent. The public availability of water management data must be significantly improved and links to other sectors such as agriculture, industry and science must be established.