The water wars have begun.

The devastating conflict in Syria was sparked by a water scarcity that pushed people into the cities and provoked unrest, the unrest in Yemen is rooted in a water crisis. Large parts of America and Australia are feeling the strain, and experts fear a future war for water between India and China.

So, forget oil: the greatest battles and conflicts of the 21st century will be over humanity’s most precious resource. Ireland, with an average of 150 days of rainfall along the east and southeast coasts to 225 days in parts of the west, might seem immune to the problems of water supply, but our policymakers are waking up to the challenge of providing safe and sustainable water, and in treating our own wastewater.

Our main goal is simple: clean, safe water for everyone

At Dublin City University, researchers are stepping up. Fiona Regan, professor of chemistry at DCU, is founder and director of the Water Institute which, in 2015, brought together researchers across a range of disciplines to carry out research on a wide range of national and global water problems. Many of these researchers are also lecturing both undergraduates and postgraduates.

“Our main goal is simple: clean, safe water for everyone,” says Prof Regan. “We are working on agricultural projects such as reducing nutrients to waterways. We are looking at how best to provide safe water in Africa. We are successfully monitoring Ireland’s waterways for pollutants so that we can protect swimmers and leisure users. We are highly focused on technology and are developing our expertise. We are looking at how to recover ammonia from the water that can be used as fertiliser. The next wars will be over water and, in parts of the world, water is going to industry instead of people. Our big question is how can we use engineering and science to provide water to all people.”

Dublin Bay – images courtesy of DCU

Part of the solution to this problem lies in the cross-disciplinary nature of the Institute’s work with academics from chemistry, environmental science, finance, engineering and public policy among the researchers engaged in different projects. But it also means moving outside the comfort zone. “In this, we’re working with researchers from other third-levels and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as private companies and state agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Prof Regan. “We will of course work with industry if there is a problem that we can help them to solve, and this may in turn lead to new technologies as well as spin-out companies.”

Increasingly, the world’s biggest, best and most impactful researchers reach out beyond the confines of their own institutions and work with other academics as part of wider collaborations. The Water Institute is no different. “We’re working with the Stockholm Water Institute on developing policy around [national boundaries] where water is, or could be, in dispute,” says Prof Regan. “We’re working with the Catalan Institute on water scarcity and Arizona State University on water and health.”

there remains a job of work to do in getting people to recognise the value and scarcity of water

The Water Institute has also worked closely with computer giant IBM on the “internet of things” – embedding connections in everyday objects so they can send and receive information – around water. The internet of things can also allow a utility provider to know where leaks are because sensors can indicate pressure drops.
The Institute has joined forces with building materials company Kingspan to develop a smart sensor network for water level monitoring which could help provide solutions to flooding in some parts of Ireland. “The technology has real-time capability and an app that can be easily downloaded and accessed by end users,” explains Regan, who is working with Dr Dian Zhang on the project. “When river waters rise to a certain level, sensors send out a warning alert, via SMS, to a local business owner, farmer or householder in a vulnerable area.” The sensors are affordable which means that they can be used as a part of a nationwide network.

Prof Regan says that there remains a job of work to do in getting people to recognise the value and scarcity of water. “I’ve heard vox-pops where people point out that water falls from the sky. And yes, that is true: it does. But the cost of treating the water to get it safely to your tap, or treating it when it comes from your toilet, is less known. It’s not that people are ignorant but there does need to be more work put into explaining this to them. And this is what we are aiming to do.”

Projects at the Water Institute:

For more information visit www.dcuwater.ie

 

Peter McGuire is a freelance features and news journalist. He also works a researcher and editor. He is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and the Huffington Post, and has also written for the Irish Examiner, Sunday Business Post and Irish Independent.

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