Project DEMOCRITUS: Exploring the role of water in the Digital Future

None of us has missed KTH’s new digitalization initiative, KTH Digital Future. The initiative will provide long term funding for interdisciplinary research, financed via direct government funding of 78 MSEK yearly. The objective of the Initiative is to use this long term funding to address societal challenges and possibilities in the areas of smart society, digital industry, and rich and healthy life, by designing societal-scale systems that are trustable, can cooperate, and are able to learn from the data they generate.

While KTH Digital Future will start for real in 2020, KTH prepared for a quick start by launching nine pilot research projects already in 2019. These projects were selected in two rounds, among ca. forty project proposals, after evaluation in six expert panels, three considering mainly scientific strength, while other three focusing on societal relevance.

Our project DEMOCRITUS “Decision-making in Critical Societal Infrastructures” is one of these pilot projects. DEMOCRITUS is a collaboration of researchers from the the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the School of Engineering Sciences (SCI) at KTH and the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE). We, the coordinators of the digitalization cluster of the WaterCenter are both part of the project, and our objective is to build up strong collaboration between the WaterCentre and the KTH Digital Future platform.

The future digitalization in smart cities must include water: the preservation and use of natural waters around our cities, the distribution of drinking water, or the handling of stormwater.  Therefore, we are very happy that with our KTH Digital Future winning project proposal DEMOCRITUS we can now connect the activities of the WaterCenter with the research in KTH Digital Future.

The path towards the smart society critically depends on large infrastructures like electrical grids, urban transportation systems, or water distribution networks. These systems must operate efficiently, with predictable performance and meet stringent safety and security requirements. We believe that these societal systems can be constructed using a common set of novel design principles despite their technological diversity. The objective of DEMOCRITUS is to find and demonstrate these principles.

In DEMOCRITUS, we selected water distribution networks as the use case for the first phase of the project, since these exhibit many unsolved challenges. Water distribution networks tend to be of very large scale, and today it is little known what is going on with the pipes and in the pipes, since both the monitoring of the infrastructure and monitoring of the water quality is challenging. At the same time, water is traditionally considered to be abundant and cheap, and there is little economic incentive to modernize the infrastructure. Water is also a critical resource that needs to be protected against both physical and cyber threats.

The DEMOCRITUS project will design distributed machine learning based solutions for efficient and secure monitoring and decision making in critical societal infrastructures such as those for the delivery of water.

To address these challenges, the project will contribute with fundamental theoretic results in the areas of distributed machine learning, supported by resource efficient communication and security and privacy enhancing techniques. We will complement the theoretical work by building up an emulation environment, where the emulated water distribution network will be monitored and controlled dynamically through a 5G wireless testbed.

To make sure that the project becomes relevant for the water sector, we have to find ways to learn across the issues and opportunities the sector that we see today, but also find ways to educate professionals in the water sector about the technology solutions digitalization can provide.

Expect to meet us at WaterCentre@KTH events in 2020!

/Viktoria Fodor, Carlo Fischione

On-property water and heat recovery: saviour or saboteur?

If recovery of water and heat becomes a standard technology, does it mean a net benefit or cost to society? Who will be the losers, and who will be winners? In the project “SEQWENS” coordinated by WaterCentre@KTH we are looking at exactly this.


Throughout cities in Europe and the US, the heat in our buildings is distributed by district heating. Over 90% of multi-household properties in Sweden are connected. The property companies buy heat from the district heating grid to warm up cold water (which typically is between 4-15 degrees Celsius), to produce hot water for cleaning, washing, etc. After all, few people enjoy taking a shower in 4 degrees. After use, the hot water is released to the sewerage network leading to a wastewater treatment plant. There it is purified from environmentally harmful pollutants, while the heat is extracted using heat pumps and fed back to the district heating grid.

Fig.1 A system description of water, wastewater and heat circulation today in Stockholm region. (Courtesy of Farzin Golzar.)

As property owners and developers now seek to reduce their energy consumption in pursuit of efficiency targets and GHG emission reduction, they increasingly install technologies for recovering heat from the wastewater on the property. Some also experiment with re-use of the hot water itself, by adding a small-scale treatment stage. Energy for hot water is a substantial share of the total energy consumption. There is energy – and therefore money – to save on wastewater heat recovery.

But what happens to the district heating system then, when less energy is in circulation? Around 800 GWh is extracted annually from the sewage treatment plants by Stockholm Exergi AB, the district heating company covering the Stockholm region. That is no small amount of energy. Moreover, the wastewater released from buildings with heat recovery is going to be colder. Potentially this can cause trouble downstream for the wastewater plant, whose treatment processes will be negatively affected if the incoming water is too cold. So what seems like a great idea for the property owners could be a loss for the district heating company and the wastewater company, both with municipal ownership. If recovery of water and heat becomes a standard technology, does it mean a net benefit or cost to society? Who will be the losers, and who stand to gain from such a development? In the project “SEQWENS” (Sustainability and EQuality of Water and ENergy Systems during actor-driven disruptive innovation) which is financed by FORMAS, we are looking at these questions during 2019-2021.

On 28 November we organised a Reference Group meeting at KTH where we presented preliminary results from our case studies, and discussed the various scenarios we intend to analyse, with representatives from real estate and property, water and heat industry. Dr. Jörgen Wallin, KTH Energy technology, presented the findings from four analyses of existing heat recovery in Stockholm. They represent both commercial and residential houses, and different types of technologies (heat exchangers, with or without heat pump). The test results show that the performance differs substantially depending on the design and operational conditions. One configuration recovers over 40% of the heat available in the wastewater. Regarding the share of recovered heat compared to the total water heating demand, figures over 20% were common.


Fig 2. Reference group visits the heat exchange installation at KTH Live-in-Lab and Einar Mattsson AB property, one of the case studies (KTH Rocks). Photo: David Nilsson

We can confidently say there are substantial energy savings to be made for the property owner, although we are yet to make the economic analysis of these case studies. As one of the property owners put it; the tariff of the district heating service is critical for any investment decision into recovery technology. And from the system-level point of view, the overall outcome of individual actors’ strategies still needs to be assessed. Is the new technology a saviour or saboteur for sustainable development in society? Or just something in between?

In the coming year, the project will focus more on the analysis of actor strategies, and a case study on organisational innovation in Värmdö municipality. We will also start building scenarios that can be evaluated using a conceptual model for heat and water circulation in Stockholm. This work is led by Dr. Timos Karpouzoglou in cooperation with Dr. Farzin Golzar, both KTH, and Associate Professor Pär Blomkvist from Mälardalen Högskola. If your are interested in following our project, please get in touch with the WaterCentre administrator Lisa-Mee Swartz ( or just visit our project webpage every now and then.

To be continued!


David Nilsson

Director, WaterCentre@KTH

The palm-graves of the palm-groves

“Once upon a night, spread fire to the reeds with whole flames,
Burned it to the end, as heart melts by falling tears.
Burned and burned, carelessly, the flame;
to, each reed has been burned as a mourning-candle on his grave.”

– Rumi (1207-1273), a famous Persian poet and  Sufi mystic

A dead palm-grove in Khuzestan province, Iran. Photo: ISNA

This is the story of a palm cemetery that was historically a rich palm-grove in south-west of Iran, Khuzestan province. I would promise that this is not a curse from a mad God nor the painful legacy left from the mass destruction of Iran-Iraq’s war (1980-1988). All is about thirst, a juice of cursed salt in a river.

Khuzestan province in Iran; Karun, Karkheh and Shatt al-Arab Rivers. Photo: Google maps, Middle East Eye

Having a long history back to Elam civilization (3000 BC), Khuzestan province is known as the heart of Iran not just by having rich oil and gas reserves but also by the five major rivers flowing through its plateau.

Sketch of the Mesopotamian river system. Illustration: UN-ESCWA

Two of these five major rivers, Karun and Karkheh, has the largest basins in Iran generated from Zagros Mountains. The Karun basin extended over a mountainous and foothill zones to inland/coastal-desert. The climate at the downstream region is extremely hot (air temperatures above 50°C) and the total annual precipitation is about 150 mm (UN-ESCWA, 2013). The Karun and Karkheh Rivers discharge into the Shatt al-Arab (a.k.a as Arvand-Rud in Persian) made by confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Shatt al-Arab is a transboundary river between Iran and Iraq that forms the main source of freshwater to the Persian Gulf.

Changes in vegetation by the bank of the rivers between 1975 (left) and 2002 (right). Photo: UNEP

The Shatt al-Arab River is about 192 km from its origin to its mouth in the Persian Gulf; its basin in both neighboring countries was enriched by 17-18 million date palms (a fifth of the world’s 90 million palm trees) in the mid-1970s (UNEP, 2019).

According to UNEP (2019), by 2002, more than 14 million (80%) of the date palms were wiped out and the prime cause of this disaster that began emerging in the late 1960s is the salinity of the fresh water in the rivers.

Salinization is the result of a combination of natural and anthropogenic causes. Anthropogenic activities such as large-scale development of upstream water regulation and dam structures, together with the drainage of the Mesopotamian Marshes, agricultural, industrial and domestic effluents cause the salinization problem. However, the effect of the prolonged and intense crossfire of the Iran-Iraq war on the palm-grove should not be neglected. (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018).

The deposit salts in the ground are transported by groundwater to rivers and streams; moreover, the salt concentration in rivers increases by evaporation. These are salinization´s natural causes (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018).  Furthermore, the effect of high tides that push saltwater from sea (in this case from Persian Gulf) to upstream is of a high importance among the natural effects.

Salinization affects the dates, Khuzestan province. Photo: ISNA

For the irrigating of palm-groves and the farmlands on the bank of the rivers, many streams and water-intake facilities have been used for decades. The amounts of fresh water inflow from the rivers and the tide wave advance in the water way are inversely related together. Nowadays, by having low discharges of freshwater in the mentioned rivers, the tide wave more easily push saltwater upstream toward the farmland and the cities. For the last four decades, the salinity of the mentioned rivers has increased steadily. High salinity of the water made it unsuitable or even harmful for most domestic and agricultural uses (Rahi Amtair, K., 2018). Today, the present palm-groves comprising a treasure of more than 800 date varieties in both Iran and Iraq are facing a complete wipe-out (UNEP, 2010).

Going back a few centuries, date palms are known as very strong trees to be able to regenerate even from fire damages as Phoenix, the mythical bird sprang from the ashes (UNEP, 2010). This harmony with date palms’ botanical name, Phoenix dactylifera L. sounds astonishing. However, through decades, the “Heart of palm” ( have been slowed down due to the thirst and droughts; and I wish I knew if this Phoenix could be born again from the ashes!

/Roya Meydani, Doctoral student at KTH, November 2019

References, accessed on November 2019., accessed on November 2019., accessed on November 2019.

Rahi Amtair.K, 2018, Salinity Management in the Shatt Al-Arab River, International Journal of Engineering & Technology, 7 (4.20) (2018) 128-133 (19) (PDF) Salinity Management in the Shatt Al-Arab River. Available from: [accessed Nov 06 2019].

UN-ESCWA and BGR (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe). 2013. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia. Beirut.

UNEP, n.d., accessed 2019, Shatt al-Arab. Environmental Change Hotspots. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA). United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP, 2010. UNEP Atlas of Our Changing Environment – Site Details Shatt al-Arab [WWW Document]. Iraq. URL (12/08/2010).

Mistra InfraMaint’s first workshop for doctoral students

At the end of September, it was time for Mistra InfraMaint’s first workshop for doctoral students involved in the research programme. InfraMaint, a research programme that started about a year ago, focuses on “smart” maintenance of infrastructure. The vision of the programme is a “sustainable infrastructure that is safe and available around the clock”. Critical infrastructure, like roads and water systems, are important for the daily functioning of the society. To guarantee their future services, knowledgeable and informed decisions need to be done to properly manage and maintain these systems. The implementation of smart technologies, such as sensors, AI, and IoT, has the potential of improving and making maintenance more sustainable and efficient. InfraMaint aims to halve the competence shortage and give municipalities and W&S operations a better basis for maintenance decisions.

The workshop took place at Stockholm Vatten och Avfall, Sweden’s largest water and waste management company and one of the partners in the research programme. InfraMaint consists of around 20 research projects, whereof ten of these are doctoral student projects. The projects cover different topics relevant for smart maintenance of infrastructure and are categorized according to three different themes; 1) sustainable decision support, 2) sustainable business model organization, and 3) sustainable competence building. Participating in the workshop were doctoral students, supervisors and the programme management. The aim of the workshop was to get to know each other and set out the common goals and vision of the programme.

Guided tour led by Tommy Giertz at Stockholm Vatten och Avfall. Photo: Evelina Hådén

The day started with an introduction to the research programme and its overall goals. Thereafter, the participants and the different research projects were presented. Most projects are now ongoing, however, a few are still waiting for a doctoral student to be appointed (if you, or someone you know, are interested in a PhD position, please check available positions at InfraMaint’s website). The day also included a guided tour at Stockholm Vatten och Avfall’s premises, as well as a presentation of how the implementation of a digital system has made part of their operation more efficient. During the day, discussions were held on how to emphasize collaboration between the different projects and how to work with knowledge sharing. The day ended with a joint dinner to conclude the day.

The workshop ended with a joint dinner in the evening. Photo: Evelina Hådén

The following day, October 1st, InfraMaint’s yearly meet-up took place at RISE’s premises at KTH campus. The meet-up was opened to partners involved in the research programme, as well as other stakeholders interested in the programme. InfraMaint engages of a large consortium, involving universities, research institutes, and municipalities, among others. The day started with a general presentation of the programme and the current status of the different research projects. Progress and results from the programme this far were also presented. For instance, a pre-study to project 2.1 “Systems logic and business model alignment in smart maintenance of infrastructure” was done during the spring by the master’s students Emil Mårtensson and Philip Rumman at KTH. They conducted a case study at Stockholm Vatten och Avfall and their thesis “Asset management in the utility sector” presents possible challenges public utility companies face when implementing asset management principles.

During the second half of the day, digitalization was on the agenda and questions as “how do we implement digital systems?” and “how do we use available data?” were addressed. Representing the district heating industry, Magnus Ohlsson from Öresundskraft presented how they have digitalized their operation and now collect information about their systems to improve decision support. Lina Bertling Tjernberg, professor in Power Grid Technology at KTH, presented how the power grid uses databased maintenance-optimization. She emphasized that digitalization is a way to increase the value of assets, not only a way to “save money”. Lastly, Kristina Gabrielii, chairman of the board of Mistra InfraMaint, gave some inputs from the construction business. A common theme during the presentations was the importance of working with standardization.

The workshop for doctoral students and the yearly programme meet-up were two days filled with information and inspiration. The research projects within InfraMaint cover different aspects of maintenance of infrastructure, but with the common goal of a safe and available infrastructure. The days consisted of many interesting discussions and raised several relevant questions, illustrating a great interest and need for knowledge in the area. The days were a great chance to get to know other people working with smart maintenance and a possibility to share knowledge and ideas with each other. As one of the doctoral students in the research programme, I’m looking forward to continuing this project and taking part of the achievements we will accomplish together in the programme!

/Amelie Bennich
Doctoral Student at KTH, project 2.1 “Systems logic and business model alignment in smart maintenance of infrastructure” in Mistra InfraMaint

Interview with Amelie Bennich at

The Fellowship of the Off-grid

The challenge of water and sanitation is one that unites us all around the globe. While the context may vary from country to country, we can also learn a lot from each other, as illustrated by a recent visit of Tanzanian students and professors to Värmdö.

Only 50% of Tanzania’s population of 56 million inhabitants has access to an improved source of water supply and only 34% of the population has access to improved sanitation. These kind of statistics are omnipresent in water and sanitation studies and reviews. However, the impacts of these dreadful situations are often overlooked, meaning that no follow up study to understand the daily impacts of such statistics on the population are made.

The arid climate of Tanzania renders the supply of clean, sanitary water very difficult for people unless they live near one of the three major lakes which border the country. Consequently, groundwater has become an important source of water supply in the country. The issue is that many of these groundwater wells are located in areas near toxic drainage systems (sewage/industrial waste & agricultural runoff), leaking and contaminating the groundwater. As a result, Tanzanians often turn to surface waters which often contain bacteria and human waste. A lot of people have no choice but to drink, bathe and wash their clothes in these polluted waters. The impacts of this unsafe usage of water are disastrous. According to the Tanzania National Website, water-borne illnesses (malaria, cholera, etc) account for over half of the diseases affecting the population (National Strategy on Gender and Climate Change, 2013)!

The situation in Tanzania today is far from being fixed, but the government and the population understand the importance of having access to safe water and sanitation. One of the ideas that has recently emerged is to install more decentralized off-grids water and sanitation networks. This would give access to water and sanitation to those geographically disadvantaged. It is in this context that professors and students from UDSM (University de Dar es Salaam) came to WaterCentre@KTH for a day to discuss and see examples of decentralized water networks in Stockholm’s archipelago. The newly formed off-grid water supply fellowship travelled to Värmdö municipality for the day. Although our journey was not as adventurous as Tolkien’s fellowship, water in the future will surely be as precious as the one ring, have no doubt about it.

Värmdö Municipality is comprised of a group of islands (more than 10 000 islands) to the east of Stockholm, Sweden with a population of roughly 40 000. Limited soil cover means the creation of a municipal water system is very costly. The municipality is currently undergoing a shift from seasonal to permanent residency and unprecedented growth which leads to increasing water demand. While yearly effective precipitation is sufficient to meet this demand, during the summer season very little groundwater recharge occurs, leading to local groundwater decline and environmental stresses such as salinization of groundwater due to the very low storage capacity in the hard rock. In addition, as climate change prognostics predict an increase in duration and intensity of the summer season, it is likely that this municipality will face more challenges in meeting future water demands (Robert Earon, 2019).

Now, obviously the conditions in the Swedish archipelago are quite different from that of Dar. Technology plays an important role but what works in the Swedish context might be inappropriate in Tanzania. However, there’s a lot to learn about the organisational setup in dealing with local water and environment challenges in an off-grid setting.

The first stop on the day’s itinerary was Bullandö Marina, where a small scale water treatment plant (using groundwater and seawater) and a wastewater treatment plant are currently operated by the Marina company and serving the local community. This was a good example to show how decentralized water treatment and supply was organized and managed in Varmdö.

Figure 1. Employee of the Marina & the group standing in front of the small-scale water treatment plant.

Next, the fellowship moved on to Aspvik to meet with Johan Neuman, a local entrepreneur who showed just how effective getting a local community to work together can be. This part of the municipality did not have access to the municipal water and sewage network. Rather than waiting an unknown yet certainly high number of years for the municipality to invest in connecting Aspvik to the municipal network, this local entrepreneur thought to himself “Why not just do this ourselves?”. A valid question which, in my opinion, is asked but too rarely. The municipality agreed to let the local community do this, but only if everyone in Aspvik agreed to it. In other words, every single household in the community would need to have a connexion to the network. And after only a few years of planning, organizing, digging and laying of pipes, the project was finished, resulting in the local community being connected to the municipal water and sewage network. This was a great example for students and teachers from Dar to see what a welded and organized small community can accomplish. Now one main diverging factors is the financial means of the local Aspvik community, who were able to complete this project thanks to the sizable investment made by each resident. It seems evident that small communities in Dar do not have the same financial means, yet the idea of taking matters into their own hands resonated with the professors and students.

Figure 2. Local entrepreneur explaining with passion how the project of connecting the local community to the municipal network was lead.

After a well-deserved lunch in Gustavsberg where the delegation from Tanzania was able to have a taste of Sweden’s famous fish and salad bar, the fellowship moved on to a meeting with the municipality of Värmdö. Employees from the municipality explained to everyone how the municipal water and sewage network was managed, how zones for expansions of the network were chosen, and how private wells and sewage treatment were documented and regulated. The short presentation was followed by a discussion were students and teachers asked questions and talked about the similarities and differences in the challenges met by both countries and the potential solutions.

Figure 3. Discussion with Värmdö municipality.

The final stop on our adventure was Återvall, where Robert Earon lead the fellowship on a journey through the terrain laying on top of an aquifer. He explained the hydrogeological characteristics of the aquifer and its importance for the local community. This highlighted an important aspect of water and sewage networks, the knowledge of the land. Without proper geological and hydrogeological studies, it is impossible to use an aquifer safely and to its maximum potential. This was also the occasion to mention the concept of circular water use, by explaining the managed aquifer recharge using lake water which used to take place here in Återvall.

Figure 4-5. Robert Earon explaining the hydrogeological characteristics of the aquifer.

Then came the inevitable drive home which provided ample time for students, teachers and KTH employees to further discuss and reflect on the day’s journey. Overall, I believe everyone had a really fun day and a fruitful learning experience. Now while the ring might not have been destroyed yet, the long path which lays before all of us to provide safe drinking water supply and sanitation to the world has become, maybe, just a bit clearer.

/Simon Solaro


Doeringast, Ernest. The Reform of the Water Sector in Tanzania, (2005)

Victory for Water Rights in Tanzania. Unitarian Universalist Service Committe,e (6/2/08)

WHO & UNICEF, Protecting and Promoting Human health:

United Republic of Tanzania, Division of Environment, National Strategy on Gender and Climate Change, (2013):