The water wars have begun.

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.

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

“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.”

DCU's Water Institute - Professor of Chemistry Fiona Regan founder & director of the institute comprised of researchers & lecturers. Image: Dublin Bay.

Dublin Bay – Images courtesy of DCU

Part of the solution to this problem lies in the cross-disciplinary nature of DCU’s Water 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 about DCU’s Water Institute visit

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.

You might also like...

Degrees of Research

What’s being discovered at Dublin’s third-levels? Postgraduate degrees are increasingly useful for people who want to stand out in the jobs market. Much of the focus here has tended to be on taught masters programmes, but the skills picked up during a masters by research or a doctoral (PhD) programme are invaluable: you will learn about how to research and evaluate information and then effectively communicate what you have learned. We spoke to four students about their research projects and what’s next for them. Lisa Koep, PhD candidate at the school of marketing in

Read More

Horticultural Dublin: The Bots

First things first: The Bots. What is it? “The Bots” is how teachers and students refer to The Teagasc College of Amenity Horticulture, located at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. They’ve been teaching there since 1812 so there’s quite a bit of history. For our first instalment of Horticultural Dublin we want to find out about this unique institution hidden away in the suburbs. To investigate, we’ve enlisted some people on the inside. We’ve got John Mulhern, Principal of the College, and prized former pupil, Gary Mentanko. John has been with Teagasc, a wider authority on agriculture and food development, for 20-odd years. Gary studied Horticulture at the Bots and has also conducted Horticultural work in the Arctic. We’ll come back to that.

Read More

World-class teacher: Luke O’Neill, immunologist

As Professor Luke O’Neill discovered recently, when you become a fellow of the extremely exclusive and august science club that is the Royal Society, you have to sign their book. Previous signatories include Newton, Boyle, Freud and Einstein (Oh, and superstar astrophysicist Brian Cox). Which makes the process rather nerve-wracking, according to O’Neill, a biochemist at Dublin’s Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute and one of the world’s leading immunologists. Luke O’Neill: There’s a practice, you don’t want to smudge your name! That’s quite some company you’re keeping there - but what do all you science guys have in common? Luke O’Neill: Science is trying to find stuff out. You can call it exploration, you can call it pioneering, frontier stuff because it’s all about making discoveries. We are explorers, that’s our job, that’s what attracted me to it. I wanted to see something nobody’s seen before. And in my case, luckily enough in my lab we probably had three big discoveries that made a big difference: we explored the immune system and saw things there for the first time. The next step is there’s a whole new pathway or process discovered - and of course the thrill would be if that was a dysfunction or a disease because then you might try and correct it. Once you find the enemy, you might be able to design a new medicine that might beat it. So you’re a biochemist and not an ordinary one? Luke O’Neill: I’m a bit of a schizophrenic! I was interested in chemistry anyway and biochemistry is chemistry writ large: if you want to understand something you’ve got to understand the chemical basis for things - and biochemistry is the basis for life. If we understand the chemicals of life wouldn’t that be a thrilling thing? One comparison is with genetics: geneticists don’t really go beyond the genes, you know – and I want to know the real fundamentals. Like genes makes proteins, but what do they do? I was always obsessed with true mechanism – the underlying mechanism, the very basics of how things work. I’ve always been obsessed with molecular things in a sense.

Read More