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Protecting the water we drink: four-year Security Research project concludes its work to counter deliberate attacks on water systems

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One of the less obvious, but potentially devastating, threats to human health would be a deliberate contamination of the public’s drinking water. Indeed, such an attack on a municipal or regional water distribution network could grind daily life to a halt for all users.

Countering such threats has been the focus of several Security Research projects, of which one of the bigger ones has just concluded its research into the subject by developing new technological solutions for preventing and detecting contaminants in water distribution systems. Known as SECUREAU (“Security and decontamination of drinking water distribution systems following a deliberate contamination”), the 48-month project finished its R&D work in February 2013.

One of the project’s key accomplishments was the development of generic and specific sensors, which it tested in laboratory-scale reactors and in urban and rural water distribution networks. SECUREAU’s work also tested and confirmed the efficacy of different decontamination techniques for cleaning the insides of pipes, in some cases with very simple and cheap methods.

With a total budget of EUR 7.48 million – of which the EU contributed 70 percent (EUR 5.26 million) – SECUREAU’s consortium of 14 public and private partners focused its primary effort on ways to rapidly restoring the health of public water in case of contamination.

To support this goal, however, meant developing and testing an integrated technology system capable of carrying out multiple tasks such as:

  • the detection and localisation of contaminants – including their points of entry
  • the measurement of contaminants in the water system
  • methods for decontaminating the water and removing the contaminants
  • ways to “scrub” (clean) the physical infrastructure through which the water passes in order to decontaminate the infrastructure

For example, the earliest possible detection of water-borne diseases such as cholera or typhoid that were deliberately injected into a system would be critical, followed by the use of disinfectants to neutralise them. Scrubbing would be crucial, however, for any chemical or radiological agents injected into water to eliminate their sorption along the inner linings of a distribution system’s pipes, joints and valves.

As the SECUREAU team notes, a deliberate contamination with such CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) agents would render a water system “unusable for a long time with a risk of societal disorder” unless completely removed from the system.

After fours years of work, the SECUREAU team says it has developed a number of new technologies for a holistic approach to protecting water distribution systems. These are now close to commercialisation or are entering the marketplace and include:

  • an early warning system based on monitoring and detecting contaminants, including mathematical models for the positioning of sensors and decision-making based on the data they generate.
  • rapid localisation contamination sources
  • technological strategies for cleaning distribution systems and for controlling the efficacy of decontamination procedures.

 

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