Digital Twin of the Limpopo Basin advances with new prototype

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The idea of creating a complete virtual representation, or Digital Twin, of a natural system opens up future in which decision-makers can easily identify and respond to environmental issues. Advances in remote sensing and cloud computing mean that it is technically feasible, but how can it practically be achieved in the context of the global South?

The Limpopo Watercourse Commission (LIMCOM) Secretariat has been engaging closely with researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to develop a Digital Twin that meets their needs, under the CGIAR Initiative on Digital Innovation and the Digital Innovations for a Water Secure Africa (DIWASA) project.

Around 18 million people rely on freshwater in the Limpopo River Basin, which is now threatened by climate variability, overuse and pollution. LIMCOM faces the challenge of overseeing this large and complex system, which covers four hundred thousand square kilometers and four countries: Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. A Digital Twin would radically improve the ability for LIMCOM, riparian governments and other stakeholders to sustainably use and preserve the river basin.

The Digital Twin technical task team demonstrate the prototype. Credit: IWMI.

The prototype Digital Twin for the Limpopo River Basin Concept leverages a high-resolution 3D topographical map to integrate near real-time, historical, and forecasted data. The core of the system is a hydrological model, including layers for river discharge, rainfall, water quality, and ecosystem information, providing detailed insights into water availability and risks. The prototype aims to monitor droughts, map reservoirs, irrigated areas and support environmental flows (e-flows) management by monitoring the river ecosystem’s state over time.

“The possibilities for a Digital Twin in river basin water management are extraordinary,” said Chris Dickens, principal researcher at IWMI. “In the present world, water resource managers are faced with complex decisions based on large amounts of sometimes contradictory data interpreted by different models. The Digital Twin has the potential to simplify this, using AI to pull together this complex data so that the manager can make what-if decisions freely and rapidly without having to work through all the models. This has the potential to make water resource management more effective, leading to greater sustainability and increasing water security for all.”

Co-design to build meaningful platforms for stakeholders

The development of the digital twin prototype, which runs alongside LIMCOM’s management information systems, such as the Limpopo Management Information System (LIMIS), follows a co-design ideation workshop and prototype demonstration hosted by the developers of the LIMIS in May 2024. This workshop aimed to facilitate a shared understanding of the data requirements for water resources management in the Limpopo River Basin, generate innovative ideas, and ensure that the final digital twin design reflects the collective input and insights of the team and primary stakeholders.

LIMCOM has adopted the Digital Twin as part of its strategy, and as a key part of the  “Integrated Transboundary River Basin Management for the Sustainable Development of the Limpopo River Basin” project (LIMCOM-UNDP/GEF).*

According to Eddie Riddell, regional coordinator for the LIMCOM-UNDP/GEF project, the digital twin concept can improve water management in the Limpopo River Basin by using the state-of-the-art technologies, adding that LIMCOM Member States will deliberate on how the concept could run alongside LIMCOM’s information systems.

Paulo Silva, senior IT architect, moderates the design thinking workshop, explaining the theory behind digital twins to align the DT concepts and technologies available. Credit: IWMI.

With the end user in mind, the goal is to create a system where users can easily interact with the model and receive automated alerts, without needing expertise in the large amounts of data and modelling taking place in the background. In addition to interactive 3D models, the prototype is also exploring virtual reality interfaces. In a future version, the goal is to incorporate an AI virtual assistant for users to explore the model, for example asking for forecasts, historical comparisons or simulations of decisions they might take.

One of the main constraints to be overcome is a lack of data that would usually be available to a Digital Twin, for example an industrial system would have sensors at every stage. In the Limpopo River Basin, there are large differences in the number of sensors across different countries. To overcome this obstacle, satellite imagery supported by Digital Earth Africa and modelling will be used to supplement ground-based sensors, including citizen science to fill data gaps and include community perspectives. The system is designed to grow in complexity over time as more data sources are integrated.

To incorporate data and modelling on river flows, IWMI has signed an agreement with AWARD (The Association for Water and Rural Development) an influential NGO based in the Limpopo River Basin with decades of experience in water management, which collects data on water flows from local authorities and makes it easier to understand using its INWARDS (Integrated Water Resources Decision Support System).

“The digital twin for developing countries is not about showcasing impressive visual 3D technology; it’s about bringing visibility to key water challenges, addressing them with available resources and technology, and providing a platform that can translate complex science into a simple decision-making governed process,” said Mariangel Garcia, research group leader at IWMI.

Regional and global interest

At the 10th World Water Forum in Bali, Dr. Inga Jacobs-Mata, Director of Water-Growth and Inclusion for IWMI, held a session on the co-design process for the Digital Twin at the African Pavilion. The session engaged African water management institutions interested in collaborating with scientists to bring similar approaches to their own countries. LIMCOM executive secretary Sérgio Sitoe presented his experience with the co-design process and capacity development for local partners to fully benefit from digital tools. Discussions also touched on how these tools could be used for broader planning purposes beyond water resources, such as landscape scenarios and grazing regimes, to offset pressure on water resources. The African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) expressed interest in partnering to explore how these approaches can be incorporated into the Blue Africa initiative.

Sérgio Sitoe, LIMCOM Executive Secretary, at 10th World Water Forum in Bali discussing the importance of co-design at the 10th World Water Forum in Bali. Credit: LIMCOM

The way forward

Throughout 2024, the Digital Twin project team will continue to develop the prototype with the goals of enhancing transparency in the data sources, agreeing on data standards, integrating observed data and incorporating dynamic information from abstraction and reservoirs. This is a crucial step to validate the model before it can be adopted by decision-makers.

“The beauty of developing a digital twin at a river basin scale with a scalable and affordable infrastructure is that it can be rapidly replicated and deployed in support of other river basins,” said Garcia. “The platform design is intended to provide superior monitoring and forecasting capabilities, allowing more effective and optimized tracking of water resources status in a basin, with the ultimate goal of becoming an instrument for efficient management of the resources, helping restore rivers to healthier levels of water availability and quality for the riparian communities”.

*The LIMCOM-UNDP/GEF project, implemented by LIMCOM in partnership with the Global Water Partnership Southern Africa (GWPSA), supported by UNDP and funded through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), aims to uplift the living standards of the basin’s population and conserve its resources and ecosystem services through various community-level interventions. Leveraging CGIAR’s digital innovation, Digital Earth Africa and IWMI’s extensive experience in water research and near real-time basin hydrological modeling, supported by The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, this aims to harness state-of-the-art technologies to enhance water management in the Limpopo River Basin.


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