Too much or not enough? Tackling risks to water security
By looking at the whole water system, from extreme weather to processing waste, researchers in the UK, Colombia, Ethiopia, India and Malaysia are finding ways to tackle risks to this precious resource, vital for all life on Earth.
All countries need water to support their population and economy. Yet over a quarter of the world’s population — 2.2 billion people — do not have access to safely managed drinking water.
Climate change, conflict, environmental damage, extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, land degradation, over use, pollution, poor governance and uncontrolled urbanisation are all putting pressure on our rivers and water supply, particularly in lower income countries.
To ensure water security, defined as a sustainable and adequate quantity and quality of water for people and ecosystems, all these challenges need to be taken into account.
An international group of universities and research partners is attempting to do this, working in four river basins around the world in Colombia, Ethiopia, India and Malaysia. They are using what they call a ‘systems’ approach which recognises the complexity, interactions and interdependencies between the people, institutions, natural environment, and infrastructure involved in water security.
An international team looking at the whole water system
The team, known as the Water Security & Sustainable Development Hub, involves over 150 researchers from two research institutes or universities from each country involved, plus the University of Leeds, University of Oxford, and Newcastle University. It is funded through the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund.
Leeds has particular experience in water and sanitation in developing countries, which complements Newcastle’s strong research based in hydrology. The Leeds hub members range from civil engineers to social scientists, bringing different perspectives.
Research covers four main areas, including: gathering data and making it accessible; assessing the risks to water security; and improving the policies and practice of water management. The fourth area looks at how people relate to water: for some it is purely utilitarian while for others, especially in India, it can have religious significance.
Dr Miller Alonso Camargo-Valero from the University of Leeds, explains:
“We are looking at water security in a comprehensive way — for example, if you’re thinking about the risk of flooding within a city, then it’s not simply the impact on infrastructure or buildings we need to consider, but also the impact on people.
“This means we gather data on all the water within a particular area, which includes waste as well as fresh water. Waste water is often ignored, but if it’s not properly managed, then particularly during floods, it can cause disease and poison crops.”
Assessing the risks needs to involve the people affected
Dr Camargo-Valero’s colleague, Dr Carolina Montoya Pachongo is funded through a University of Leeds Cheney Fellowship to develop a water security risk assessment toolkit as part of the hub. This will be trialled in two communities in Colombia — Cajibío and Jamundí in the Upper Cauca River basin — where the hub carries out its research, and the team hope to pilot it in Belize as well.
For the team, it’s crucial they involve the people affected to help identify which risks to prioritise, as Dr Montoya Pachongo explains:
“In low-income countries, the resources are simply not there to tackle everything, either in terms of money, time or people,” she says. “A key element of the tool is to work with those affected to identify which of the risks are most important to them and assess those in depth, to develop a risk management plan.”
The process they are developing involves six steps.
The first involves defining the hazards, and working with local residents, businesses and local government to identify the most relevant and their potential consequences.
Next, they classify these risks by their impact on human health and wellbeing, the economy, ecosystems, infrastructure and on culture, justice and peace. They also classify them by the scale of their impact, whether on households, a community, a river basin or on the whole country.
Next, the team asks participants to choose which risks must be fully assessed.
After this, experts assess the priority risks, either qualitatively or quantitatively.
Following the risk assessments, the next step is to develop ways to communicate those findings to the people affected.
Finally, the team will develop an outline risk management plan, while checking that any steps recommended within it won’t create further problems elsewhere.
“We’re currently testing each step of the process in Colombia, and refining it further to help ensure it will work in real life situations,” says Dr Montoya Pachongo.
“In Belize, we know that farmers and local communities have different priorities on water use and risks, which is creating some tensions. We’re hoping our tool can help to find common ground and a way forward,” adds Dr Camargo-Valero.
Harnessing the potential of waste water
Dr Camargo-Valero’s particular interest is in recovering resources from waste water.
He is part of the Water Security hub team in Malaysia, looking at how to capture nutrients from fish farm waste water, by growing aquatic plants that will clean the water and which can be harvested and used as fish feed or as biomass for energy production.
Another project is using microalgae to recover nutrients in waste water treatment systems, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, which could then be used as fertilisers.
He says: “Although the focus of the hub is on the Global South, many of the technologies we’re developing, like this one, could have applications in the Global North as well. The ethos of the hub is about exchanging knowledge and learning from each other, and that goes in both directions between north and south, low-income and more developed countries.”
“One of the strengths of the hub is the involvement of lots of early-career researchers, many of whom have experience of living in areas facing water insecurity, who understand the challenges in real life. They are bringing their resourcefulness and innovation to developing solutions that will be relevant not only in Colombia, Ethiopia, India and Malaysia, but in the UK as well.”
Find out more about Dr Miller Alonso Camargo-Valero and Dr Carolina Montoya Pachongo.
Find out more about water research at the University of Leeds.