Bringing Birmingham to you: Wicked Water

Professors David Hannah, Stefan Kraus and Iseult Lynch, and Dr Rachel Cooper discussed global water security and what we can do as individuals and as a society to take action.

View the video on YouTube

Date of recording: 14/10/2020
Webinar speakers: FN - Professor Fiona Nunan (chair), DH - Professor David Hannah, SK - Professor Stefan Krause, IL - Professor Iseult Lynch, RC - Dr Rachel Cooper

Q&A Session audience members:
RW    - Richard Warburg
LD    - Louisa Day

Video length:    56 mins

FN    … to pose a series of questions to the panel members and then have chance for you to put your questions to them. But do please, as I say, type them as we go along.  OK, so this evening then we have Professor David Hannah who is an alumnus of the University of Birmingham. He’s a Professor of Hydrology, a UNESCO chair in water science, a Royal Society Wolfson Fellow and College Director of Research for Life and Environmental Sciences. He’s recognised internationally for his pioneering research that seeks to understand water cycle processes, hydrological events – floods and droughts – and water related impacts on ecosystems and society.  So welcome, David.  We also have with us Professor Stefan Krause. Stefan is a Professor or Eco-hydrology and Bio Geo-Chemistry and leads the Water Challenges theme of the Institute of Global Innovation at the University.  And together with David he is leading the UNESCO Uni-twin network on eco-hydrological interfaces, addressing Wicked Water problems around the world.  His inter-disciplinary research combines the investigation of legacy (old) and emerging (or new) pollutants and their impact on water resources, ecosystems functioning and human health.   We also have with us Professor Iseult Lynch. Iseult is a Professor of Environmental Nano-Sciences and the [strand - 0:01:42] lead for pollution in the Institute of Global Innovation Water Challenges theme, as well as leading the Environmental Pollution Solutions Emerging theme. Her world-leading research investigates the environmental health and safety of engineered  nano-materials and incidental micro-plastics, with a strong focus on understanding the interface between materials and the living environment. She was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s John [Jay’s - 0:02:12] Award in 2020 for her contribution to environmental science. Well done, Iseult.  And then finally our final panellist this evening is Dr Rachel Cooper. Rachel is a Research Fellow in the Governance and Social Development Research Centre in the university’s International Development Department. Rachel is the lead researcher for a water security and climate change learning journey across the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Her work to date has focused on access inequalities, water finance and the importance of water for climate resilience. So we have a great panel this evening. I should say as well that I’m a Professor of Environmental Development and I’m also in the International Development Department at the university.  And also an alumnus as well.  OK, so I’ve introduced the panel. We’re going to start very briefly with an introduction to the topic and I’ll hand over to Stefan for that.

SK    Thank you very much, Fiona.  Yeah, let’s start with a very brief introduction that Rachel, Iseult, David and I have put together for this evening.  If we are looking at the background of this presentation, it’s a [sight - 0:03:32] that presents conditions as you may have experienced outside. It’s a bright day, it’s decently wet so a good amount of water around and as you see here on the slide of the [0:03:45] of Birmingham in Action, there’s a lot of water around. Unfortunately – and the water looks quite clean as well so it’s a lot and it’s clean – unfortunately that’s not the case for large parts of the world. In fact more than 2 billion people actually lack access to safe water for a whole lot of purposes, so lack of access to that water impacts the livelihoods, the education, the personal development, the safety, the [0:04:17] justice and general equality in many communities and most of all also, the health. Predominantly through diuretic disease which makes almost 4% of the global disease burden, diuretic disease that is related to water, polluted water or water shortage. It’s a real burden to our health systems. Of course that’s roughly 4% around the world, it’s not equally distributed, and it contributes to 1.5 million avoidable deaths per year, according to the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately of that, more than a quarter of a million avoidable deaths of children under the age of 5 as well. So it’s the second most frequent cause for death of infants under the age of 5, according to the World Health Organisation.  So this is a huge problem with regard to access and safe access to water that affects not only lower and middle income countries but predominantly lower and middle income countries.   These challenges that we are facing regarding safe access to water are further accelerated through dramatic changes that we are experiencing in our water cycle in this day and age.  We see increasing frequencies as well as magnitudes of extreme events, extreme hydrometeorological events which bring us either too much water or of course to little water. So we talk about flooding and drought and quite often, and associated to that, water that is too polluted.  That involves dichotomies like having actually a lot of water around you but it being so polluted that it’s not safe to use.  So with climate change and global climate change, the challenges that we are facing regarding safety to water and safe access to water, is even further accelerated.

…    As Fiona mentioned, Iseult, David and I have together with other colleagues at Birmingham and North Western recently looked into how the availability – or unavailability – to announce most efficient measures to reduce the spread of Covid is affecting the safety and the health of people globally.  WHO earlier this year when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged had announced that the single most, but also apparently easy way to prevent the spread of the SARS-Covid-2 virus is regular washing of your hands with water and soap and that sounds utterly easy from the perspective where we are sitting. However, it requires water, so water needs to be available. Water needs to be available and suitable quality for that and water needs to be accessible and that of course, as we briefly alluded to and want to discuss with you tonight, is by far not everywhere the case.   We have not only focused on identifying the challenges in this but also propose a whole suite of strategies to implement solutions. Some of those solutions have to do with technological improvements that can be hard-core engineering infrastructure solutions as well as using nature and nature-based solutions to improve safe access to water; behavioural changes as well as economic and political incentives and we put a couple of them up here and we are looking forward to discussing them in greater detail with you over the next 45 minutes or so.  So much about a brief introduction to the topic and I hand back over to you, Fiona, for the first questions.

FN    Great, thank you very much Stefan.  OK, so I think we’d better kick off with the first question on just what are the Wicked Water challenges, or Wicked Water problems? So perhaps I can go to David.

DH    It’s great to be part of this Bringing Birmingham To You alumni event on Wicked Water. So we’re talking about wickedness, it’s not about the degree of difficulty or the nature of the problem, rather wicked problems are different because traditional approaches cannot solve them. So we need new ways of thinking about the issues, doing our research and also developing innovative solutions. So work at the University of Birmingham aims to develop some really transformative approaches to tackle wicked water problems and these problems are wicked because they’re multi-faceted, they’re often inter-connected problems and they’re very difficult to solve due to lack of data and also in many cases, changing human requirements and needs.  So for example, to meet the aims of our UNESCO [0:09:09] of Science, we’re working on thinking about new ways of addressing, but indeed rethinking, the grand challenges about water in a changing world.  This pioneering research is really, really important. It’s vital to understand transformative change towards sustainable development of finite water resources and also towards thinking through some of the interventions that we might be able to use to enhance resilience with fresh water [0:09:32].

FN    OK, thanks for that David. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about how the water cycle is changing and why?

DH    So you might be surprised to know that the global mass of water is actually a fairly constant amount over time, but what’s really interesting is the way it’s partitioned between our different major water stores between snow, ice, ground water [0:09:53], rivers and the atmosphere and that varies across space and across time and depends upon the climate system but also the river basin or watershed controls and processes.  So the scientific community agree that the earth’s water cycle is changing and there’s widespread understanding that climate change is accelerating, both atmospheric water vapour, clouds, precipitation and run-off patterns, and also how water is stored in cold regions as snow and glaciers and in the sub-surface as ground water.  So for example, when we consider our lower atmosphere, as it becomes warmer with [0:10:28] climate change, evaporation increases, the amount of water circulating in the atmosphere increases and one of the results of this is higher atmospheric moisture that then rains out as very intense precipitation events and extremes over the land.  And also because of the warmer temperatures, that precipitation tends to fall as rain rather than snow. In many parts of the northern hemisphere, linked to this, springs become earlier or spring-like conditions become earlier and that’s resulted in a shift towards snow melt-peaks being earlier in the year, while in glaciated regions, regions covered with ice, we have the glaciers shrinking there and met water which is normally sustained summer flows, declining so there’s less available in the low flow season.  That has really significant impacts during the high water demand in the summer and in the autumn because of the reduced amount of fresh water.  

…    Also associated with high temperatures we have increased drying of the land surface, which in some areas has increased the severity and duration of droughts. Our research model in droughts up to the end of this century shows that there’s going to be regional hotspots with increased dry activity in South America and Central and Western Europe, and they’re expecting droughts to increase by about 20%, which is a really marked change.

FN    OK, that’s great. Thanks a lot, David. I think that gives us a good sense of just how the water cycle is changing. So perhaps we can move onto Stefan then and ask about how these changes in the water cycle are affecting water quality.

SK    Yeah, thank you Fiona.  So as David alluded to, we see increased frequencies and magnitudes of extreme events, both with regards to floods as well as to droughts and actually the impact of these hydrometeorological extremes can be quite disastrous throughout the world but also in this country with regard to health impacts as well as cost.  It’s often rather the water quality that is having a larger impact, a more dramatic impact.  With regards to the occasions when we deal with too much water, so floods, they on the one side connect pollutants that normally would not be connected to waterways. So it connects sources of contamination to receptor systems which could be us and our food chain. Of course we see frequently failure of infrastructure like waste water infrastructure during flood events which enables the spread of sources that normally would be separated from our fresh water, our water that we assume to be safe to use.  So changes in the frequency and magnitude of the occurrence of floods has a major impact on pollution events as well. On the other scale, on the other side of the scale, the extreme droughts that we have been experiencing throughout Europe, North America, Africa and Central Asia over the last two decades, they cause water quality extremes as well. On the one side very simply because they’re .. [0:13:28].. contaminants there is water that evaporates and it basically increases concentration by that.  Water warms and warm water stimulates a lot of activity so we see a lot of increase in the spread of particular pathogens and of course less availability to open water sources during any droughts is shifting the access to safe water as well.

FN    OK, that gives us a good understanding then of how water quality matters and how pollutants affect human health. But could you tell us a little bit more about which specific water related pollutants we’re looking at that are a concern for human health?

SK    Yeah.  There are really [0:14:28] different types of pollutant we are dealing with and one of them are geo-genic sources, like probably ones that everyone will have heard about is arsenic.  So these are pollutants that are already in the environment that stem from the rock, basically, that ground water sits in and where our use of water has changed the [0:14:53] conditions, the oxygen content in the water and in fact mobilises a lot of these.  Iseult and I have been out at the Ganges for some work in [0:15:07] the impacts of arsenic-related cancers.  And then as you mentioned in the introduction we are dealing with a [0:15:14] legacy [0:15:17] people may have heard about the nitrate time-bomb in particular in ground water, or chlorinated solvents, as well as emerging pollutants [0:15:27] and pathogens in the water.  To a large degree particulate pollutants like plastics and particular micro-plastics where here in Birmingham we are working on as well which are carriers for a whole range of other pathogens and contaminants.

FN    OK, thanks a lot Stefan. I think we’ll move now to Iseult and ask, perhaps you could tell us a bit about the main environment and human health problems that can arise from flooding and drought.

IL    Perfect, thank you Fiona. I think Stefan has introduced the issue really nicely so some of the things that we’re starting to see – and take again the micro-plastics as an example – often over time the plastics will sort of settle out into the sediment where, in a sense, they’re removed from the water column and that’s one way of removing them and minimising the harm from them. And similarly lots of other legacy pollutants collect in the sediment but often then when you have flooding events, that sediment gets churned up and all of those pollutants that have been captured in the sediment are then released and when the river has overspilled their banks, that gets spread out then on agricultural land and potentially then can also contaminate ground water and drinking water. But also then anything that’s on the land can then get taken up into any of our crops that are grown on that land, so it’s sort of a recycling of pollutants into the environment.   And Stefan also alluded to of course the fact that particles provide a surface and on that surface they carry other pollutants with them, but also they can provide a surface or a sub-straight onto which other bacteria and things can gather. What we’ve noticed in research at Birmingham and elsewhere, including some of our partners in China for example, we have found that the communities that [are rich/enrich ? - 0:17:29] on particles are different than those that are in the environment generally. So particles do provide sub-straights to change potentially the availability of some of these pathogenic bacteria as well.  And it’s also things like, you know, if drinking water and run-off water mix or sometimes depending on the infrastructure available, even in developed countries – so I think Sydney Harbour is a real classic example here of where during very heavy rainfall events, the water spills over into the drainage system and mixes with sewage and then you end up with very high concentrations of pharmaceuticals and other things in the water which makes it unsafe for recreational activities.  So it’s a whole combination of old infrastructure combined with changing flows of water and changing water cycles, as David and Stefan have said.

FN    Great, thank you.  In the introduction Stefan was talking about the problems of there not being enough water for hand-washing. But what about hand-washing with dirty water, what are some of the challenges associated with that?

IL    Well that’s an interesting concept and an interesting approach. So we’ve been reading a lot around the subject as well and with dirty water, you know, you are then exposing yourself to, for example, whatever chemicals are in there, but also more importantly to bacteria. So even things as simple as e-coli or other gastro-intestinal type bacteria which will then cause diarrhoea and, you know, diarrhoea for us in the developed world isn’t a very big problem but diarrhoea in young children in developing countries or lower and middle income countries, is associated with up to a 25% stunting in growth for children who’ve had more than five episodes of diarrhoea before the age of 2. I mean that’s very, very severe. Also there’s emerging evidence now that, for example, e-coli, [0:19:34] and other bacteria that are associated with dirty water can also impact on the effectiveness of vaccines.  So even if we do get towards vaccines they might be a challenge. But actually then washing – so one of the proposed solutions has been that when you have to make a choice of whether to use your clean water for cooking or for your animals or for hand-washing, one possibility that has been proposed is that even if you’re using what’s called ‘grey water’, so the water that’s coming out of your laundry for example, that’s better than not washing at all.   But the key challenge really seems to be availability of both the water and soap so in Nature Sustainability Paper and the [WISE - 0:20:26] Study, there was also some detail about not everybody has access to soap so it isn’t just water, it’s water and soap that’s needed really to address, particularly the Covid but any viruses really.

FN    I think that takes us nicely then to a question to Rachel on, you know, given what Covid-19 has revealed about access to water, can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges in providing sustainable, safe water access in lower and middle income countries?

RC    Thanks Fiona.  Yes, just to start with a bit of context, as I’m sure a lot of you know, the UN Sustainable Development Goals have committed us to a target of universal access by 2030. But Covid-19 has really shown up a number of challenges that we’re going to face in reaching that goal and so just to highlight three of those really quickly, the first is that often in sort of urban areas we’ve got a utility that’s responsible for providing water but they can’t service the existing demand and they haven’t got the resources to maintain, or extend, provision to the poorest.  As we all know, water comes from a system, you know, from storage through to treatment and that system obviously has costs and when you’ve got a utility that can’t meet those costs, that can actually create additional barriers for the urban poor in accessing water. One of these [themes - 0:21:46] is that it can result in a really high connection cost so you maybe want to get your household connected or your plot connected to utility water but that high initial cost is a massive deterrent. And you might find that even if you do meet that cost, you’re not going to get 24 hour access to water because we’ve got intermittent supply problems. So that also deters people and it means that what they end up doing, the urban poor particularly in informal settlement populations, is relying on private vendors and really expensive forms of water.  So there’s a whole challenge around how to make utilities sustainable and how to sort of make water affordable for the urban poor.  Secondly we’ve got problems around data and around indicators. Covid-19 really showed that a lot of water planners and city planners, particularly in lower and middle income countries, didn’t necessarily have adequate data about what the conditions were in informal settlements or in the poor communities, who had access and who didn’t and that really caused problems about where to open up new water sources.   And secondly, so in terms of indicators, we focused very much on the percentage of people or the proportion of people that have got access to safe water and we sometimes confuse that with having access to water for security.  So there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence from Africa particularly during the first wave of Covid-19 that people who could normally meet their water demand, so they could afford to buy their 20 or 25 litres of water needed to support their basic needs, couldn’t afford to buy additional water for hand-washing. And then we hit up against a number of the challenges that Iseult was just talking about.  And thirdly we really need to talk about questions of how to ensure the sustainability of supply. So it’s not just connecting people and connecting populations or cities, but how do we make sure that that supply is sustainable? The quickest example of that is the capital city of Ivory Coast. 70% of their water comes from one single reservoir and that reservoir is shrinking due to climate change so the government’s immediate solution, because obviously the water needs to keep flowing to the city, is to sink some new bore holes and use ground water instead.  But we’re also seeing ground water depletion. So whilst this is an immediate solution, it’s not going to be a sustainable way to do access in the long term. And then sort of finally, we’ve got these massive problems around finance and investment. We just don’t have the money that we need to sort of meet these sustainable development goal six targets. Thank you.

FN    I’d muted myself. Rachel, maybe you could just tell us a little bit more about why there is this finance gap?

RC    Yeah, absolutely, thank you.  So to start we are really facing a massive gap. Estimate suggests that we need an additional 1.7tn US dollars by 2030 if we’re going to get everyone on the globe access to water.  We’re also going to need an additional 6.7tn US dollars to meet our water infrastructure needs, so things like flood defences and environmental defences, drought protection measures, and we just don’t have that money at the moment and there’s a recognition that actually governments or donors aren’t going to be able to produce that amount of money by 2030. So now we need to leverage money from say the private sector or from investors and here we hit up against a big problem.  If I was to tell you that there’s a great economic case for water, that if we invest we could save $260bn a year annually around the world in avoiding problems associated with an adequate water supply, you’d think ‘great, where do I sign?’. But actually when we start talking about the investment case for individual projects, so a new water supply system for a city or a new reservoir, then we hit up into these problems around risk return profiles. So at a really broad generalisation, investors want to know about risk, ‘if I lend you my money, am I going to lose it or will I get it back?’ and what the rate of return will be and we’ve got a few problems around rate of return and risk in water for investors and so very briefly these four go down to cost recovery: water’s obviously not priced correctly for a lot of users – agriculture, households – we don’t price these things properly so then we can’t necessarily recover the costs and pay back our investors. So that makes them think this is a bit of a risky project. We’ve also got big problems around monetising benefits. So for example, if we build a new flood defence system, that is going to accrue some private benefits. If you own a business and your business doesn’t get flooded, that’s really good for you, but if you’re a home and your home doesn’t get flooded, that’s really good for people and we’re also going to save lives. But it’s really hard to turn that flood defence system into a revenue stream that can be used to pay back investors.  And thirdly we’ve got problems around scale. A lot of water projects are really small scale so your big investors, maybe your public sector pension funds, they’re not interested in these small nitty-bitty projects.  And finally, and perhaps most challenging in some ways, a lot of investors don’t understand water and it’s really hard to sell water easily in say a 30 second elevator pitch and they don’t have the tools to assess these projects so instead they choose to go for sectors that are a lot easier to navigate, like say roads or telecommunications. So we really need to think about ways that we can improve that risk return profile for water.  Thank you.

FN    OK, great. Thank you very much. I think we can see from all of the contributions so far that water really is a wicked problem, so perhaps we’ll move now to find out more about some of the solutions and about Birmingham research is contributing towards addressing these challenges. So David, can you tell us a bit more about what Birmingham research is contributing in this area.

DH    Yes, our research in Birmingham [0:27:16] which is all about ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.  [0:27:21] research is really relevant and very important in terms of achieving access to drinking water for all, thinking about how to protect and restore water related ecosystems in mountains and forests and wetlands and rivers; think about how we can improve water quality by reducing pollution; and as a university it’s really important that we think about how we can expand our international cooperation and reach and support those in lower and middle income countries on water related research but also in terms of education, to build capacity in individuals and institutions.   And lastly we seek to support and strengthen participation of local communities for improving their water management issues. So we’re very lucky at the University of Birmingham to be in a large and comprehensive university so we can draw together researchers from across the range of disciplines – science, engineering, social science, arts and humanities – but we meet them together with policy makers and the public to raise awareness of water security and global water related issues.

FN    OK, thanks David.   Stefan, perhaps you can tell us a little bit about your research, particularly in terms of identifying hotspots and hot moments of pollution and how that has contributed in terms of improving water quality.

SK    Yeah, thank you Fiona.  Indeed one of the challenges that we outlined is that often water quality phenomena are quite episodic. That means we can, within a certain event, see an increase of pollutant concentrations by several orders of magnitude and that can be very short-lived but very impactful events whereas other pollutants can be more underlying, almost like a chronic exposure but very spatially limited.   Unfortunately the traditional way of analysing water pollutants is going out, sampling water, bringing it back into a highly technological environment – a lab – and analysing it and that limits our ability to actually sample where we really need to have the information, where we need to give decision makers, regulators, water and river basin managers, the information of how to manage surface water, ground water and manage the land use in river catchments, basically.  There’s a lot of research done in Birmingham making use of that sense of revolution that is happening at the moment with a lot of very fancy technology developments that allow us to reverse analysis processes, so basically take the lab out into the field which then allows us to monitor [‘nc’ - 0:30:02] – that means ‘in the space’ where we are interested in, but also at frequencies and at resolutions that really are meaningful, not that are constrained by our ability and person power and time to sample. That allows us to pinpoint where and when pollution peaks and that is the most important information we can provide with our basin manager regulators because that allows targeted interventions and during the times and at the locations where pollution gets connected to the environment and can cause an impact there.

FN    OK, thank you.  So it’s clear that monitoring water quality is real important but how do we move from monitoring to remediating polluted sites, Iseult?

IL    Yeah, so that’s a really, really great question and it’s really where the focus of a lot of our research at the university is now and I think it builds very much on Stefan’s work and the [sense of - 0:31:03] networks that if we know where the pollutants are gathering, that gives us good starting points as to where we might be most effective in terms of remediating. And also if we know what the sources are we can also start to think about well how do we prevent those emissions from ever reaching the water in the first place, or can we think about solutions at industrial discharge sites rather than trying to remediate after the fact. Can we prevent those pollutants from every getting there?  We’re actually in the process at the moment of consolidating a lot of the research that we do and bringing together solutions, sort of technological solutions such as the sensors that Stefan mentioned, but also using those sorts of particles and nano materials and nano technologies and all of these surfaces to really develop smart devices that not just sense what’s there but then also capture it and maybe, you know, use catalytic conversion to break down those pollutants and convert them into things that are much less toxic or much less harmful.  Or even recycle those nutrients back to the ecosystems. So really combining those technological and engineering type solutions with nature based solutions, so we also have colleagues like for example Dr Louise [0:32:31] in the School of Bio-Sciences who is developing a daphnia based solution. Daphnia are like a little water flea that live in all fresh water environments really and using those as a means to mop up and degrade pollutants.  But combining those then with some of the sort of things that Rachel has been talking about, the financial incentives and also then with behavioural incentives, so how do we get companies to change their approach and how do we as consumers change the approach that we want to only use recycled plastics, for example.   So as individuals we have a lot of power to drive changes at all steps of products and their emissions and their recycling and all of the associated pollution related challenges.

FN    Great, thank you. So it sounds like nature-based solutions then certainly have something to contribute to remediating sites and addressing water pollution. Rachel, perhaps you can tell us a little bit about scaling up and nature-based solutions and some of the challenges associated with those.

RC    Yeah, absolutely.  We’re seeing that nature-based solutions are really having a moment right now with policy makers and with decision makers and also with companies. There seems to be this big surge of interest and we’ve got a really nice evidence base to show that they can work. There’s obviously a lot of factors that we need to get right and there’s some challenges around those.  So they sort of highlight four: the first is the enabling environments.  A lot of times policy and as we’ve talked about, investment and financial incentives, those maybe favour grey infrastructures, so building a dam, pouring concrete, those types of solutions.   But if we can change that enabling environment we can see a big uptake. For example in Peru in 2016 there was a small change to the law that said all utility companies had to put 2% of their revenue aside to support nature-based solutions, and also climate change disaster risk reduction.  This has raised over 100m US dollars to support that in four years, so that one small change can really help to sort of scale up the approaches.  But when we’re scaling up we really need to be aware of governance issues and equity issues. So nature-based solutions, as I’m sure some of us know already, they use or enhance or mimic these natural processes to help address these societal challenges But if we’re talking about things like say re-foresting an area or getting farmers to change their land management practices, then we need to make sure that those stakeholders are involved in the governance of the scheme and also any decision making that takes place. And we also need to be really sensitive to issues of land tenure, of equity, of indigenous knowledge, to make sure that we’re not sort of creating new inequalities by using this type of solution.  And the third area is around capacity. So a lot of say water planners or managers or water engineers in lower and middle income countries weren’t necessarily trained in nature-based solutions and are really focused on that immediate problem of how do we keep the network going, how do we sustain it, how do we maybe extend provision?  So new solutions, such as nature-based solutions, even though they’ve been around for a really long time, they have quite a long timescale before they can start to see the benefits. So if you’re focused right now on your immediate problem, planting a load of trees which might have benefits in 5 or 10 years, maybe doesn’t appeal as much. So there’s a real sort of problem around capacity building and development.  And finally, not to sound like a broken record, there’s a big financing problem as well.  For certain stakeholders such a we’ve seen with Coca-Cola and other companies signing up to water stewardship programmes, there’s an economic investment case there that’s really clear. They need clean water to flow into their production sites to make their products, so you can see why they would invest in say upstream water management. But for other types of investors where you can’t monetise that revenue stream or see like an avoided cost that actually benefits you, it’s hard to sort of get that investment.  We also commonly use cost benefit analysis tools that maybe don’t account for the longer time frames that a nature-based solution needs, or the larger sort of land area that you need to do it over. So we need to sort of address some of those financial barriers as well. Thank you.

FN    Great, thank you very much, that’s great timing. We’ve got a really good sense now of what Wicked Water is all about, what some of the problems are and some of the solutions that we’re working on at the University of Birmingham.

Q&A Session Starts

FN    So we’ve got time now for some questions and answers and so I’d like to start by inviting Richard Warburg to present his question to the panel. So if that’s OK your camera and microphone will be turned on.

RW    Hi, thank you.  The question actually is twofold: what role do you think the combination of solar or wind power or any renewable energy to convert sea water to fresh water with reverse osmosis will be able to play in this environment, because obviously you’re creating something that can be created in a sterile environment.  And could you solve two problems at once by converting excess sea water from the demise of our glaciers and use that to create fresh water on land that is presently unusable, or even usable, and thereby lower the level of the sea at the same time as creating usable land for farming and the like.

FN    So really interesting ideas in there, Richard.  I’m not sure who wants to – Stefan, are you?  Yeah.

SK    I can start. I mean it’s a complex question and we are an inter-disciplinary team so maybe I’ll make a start and others chip in and cover other aspects.  A question that combines a couple of great ideas. Some of them are – in particular in the Gulf and some parts of Africa actually – are being implemented right now.  So reverse osmosis is something that in areas that have plenty of energy, and particularly solar energy which is required for that.  Colleagues from the School of Engineering in Birmingham are heavily involved in that with colleagues from our Dubai campus in the Gulf area. So definitely where there is plenty of energy, and in particular if it’s renewable energy like solar or wind, desalinisation of sea water can be part of a solution.   A little bit of warning for the use of water for intensive irrigation, that’s what you can see in a couple of North African countries in Saudi Arabia and other areas where intensive irrigation with desalinated water is happening, there are a lot of unintended consequences that we have to be aware of related to the movement of ions and particular in the topsoils, the leaching of ions from the topsoil and the fact that a lot of that soil has not grown over centuries, if not thousands of years, to sustain long-term agriculture. So quite often the type of agriculture that would be required would not necessarily be traditional agriculture like we are used to, but there’s a lot of research also done in Birmingham on hydroponics and other very smart ways of using sub-straight for growing plants and smaller amounts of water. I think that’s a big development in that area, but I’ll let others talk now, sorry.

FN    OK. Anything from any of the other panellists in relation to that rather challenging question?

RC    If I just chip in really quickly from a sort of international kind of governance point of view, there’s a really big interest particularly in  Middle East and North African countries around solar desalination and scaling that up, obviously because of the renewable energy aspect but also you get water at a lower price and we do have some commentators and NGOs working in that area who argue that solar desalination and reducing that water price could actually help contribute to blue [peace - 0:40:56] in that region. So there’s interesting work being done at the moment to explore that possibility and how that could work in say a river basin such as the Jordan where we’re all aware there’s some real flashpoints of tension and that may be solely due to desalination as well as one of the things that can produce those.  Thank you.

FN    OK, thanks. Iseult?

IL    Yeah, again, a fascinating question and certainly lots of activity in research going on in that broad area. I actually teach a case study on that to my third years where they have to do an environmental impact assessment of a desalination plant in Israel. I think some of the challenges, I mean as Stefan mentioned, the energy cost is generally very high. Solar energy is a really good potential there and another of the big challenges with it is the bio-fouling, so the fact that the membranes get bio-fouled by all sorts of algae and bacteria and things in the water.  But again, the combination of solar power and potentially nano technologies, so materials like titanium dioxide which are photo-active and photo-oxidative, are offering lots of potential there and it’s certainly something we’re looking at as part of our overall integration of particle based technologies and solutions to address environmental challenges.  So for sure I think it’s a potentially very fruitful avenue but yeah, it will require still a good lot of research and a huge amount of investment.

FN    OK, great.  I just want to remind everyone, all the attendees, please do ask your questions in the Q&A section. Please do keep your questions coming in but in the meantime, I’d like to ask David a bit more about how we can adapt to the impacts of changing water availability around the world.

DH    Thanks Fiona.  I think much of this has been covered.  Modification of the water cycle is far-reaching and is very complex and it adds on top of the effects of climate change that I’ve mentioned, the roles of population growth and also socially economic and cultural changes.  In terms of adaptation and thinking about the impacts on the water cycle, there’s two sets of interventions we can make: one on the supply side and one on the demand side.   When we’re talking about the supply side I’m thinking there about how we can sort of moderate the human influences on the [0:43:34] of water cycles, so how water moves through the land and through the sub-surface and they do that by changing the different stores or fluxes, so how water moves through the environment.  We do this through land use and land cover change. We’ve just recently had a paper here in [0:43:48] Sustainability about how changes towards monoculture environments actually reduce the resilience of hydrological systems.  But as Rachel and others have mentioned, we’ve also got the engineering and nature based solutions that we can apply. On the demand side that’s all about some of the things we’ve also heard about this evening in terms of some of the technological solutions like the last question, the legal and policy frameworks, the importance of behavioural change, and also some instruments to think about more efficient use of water. But I think what we really want to move towards is a smart combination of both the supply and the demand side and what I would say is that often the media picks up on water use efficiency but we need to recognise that actually in some contexts, particularly in lower and middle income countries, that new supply side infrastructures are actually needed.  This is in places where we’re not talking about [0:44:38], we’re actually talking about providing water to meet the minimum needs for human health standards, as we’ve seen so clearly in the Covid crisis.

FN    OK, thanks David.  Can I ask Louisa Day to ask her question to the panel. OK, Louisa, over to you.

LD    Hi.  Yeah, I just wondered, when we hear global institutes like the World Bank talking about the invisible water crisis, what does that actually mean?

SK    Yeah, Fiona, if I can start picking that up and again others chip in.   It’s an expression that indicates that a lot of water quality issues we are dealing with, water pollution, is not visible.  It is relatively well visible whether water is there or not, so the water quantity element is something we can observe as individuals.  We see if the water is coming out of the tap or not, if water is in a river or not, if our reservoirs are empty or filled.   Seeing whether water is polluted or not, sometimes it is mucky and dirty and it’s pretty obviously polluted but in many cases it’s not. To give you one example for that, we have been working for a couple of years now in Northern India on the Ganges. The Ganges itself quite often looks turbid, so it has a very intense colour. People know that it’s full of organics and we often see a shift for particular drinking water supply to ground water which seems visually much cleaner.  But in many cases of India, of Bangladesh, it contains really high concentrations of arsenic that are in part enhanced due to our use and because we mobilise a lot of that and that causes disastrous rates of arsenic-related cancers. It’s probably debatable which of the two water sources is worse but there is no perception for the impact of that visibly quite clean water. So that’s why we call it am ‘invisible water crisis’.  It requires a lot of education about the pollution of water that can’t necessarily always been seen in order to make people aware of which water can be used safely and under what conditions and how they can prevent using water that is in a condition that it does some harm.

FN    Thank you, Stefan.  And thank you Louisa.   We have a question that’s come in that I’d like to put to you which is about where your funding comes from for your research.  So I don’t know who’d like to start. Perhaps David, you could tell us where your funding comes from for your research.

DH    So I guess there’s also direct research to the College. We get funding from a whole range of sources. We get funding from UK Research & Innovations through a range of the research councils within that. But we also gain a large amount of research funding from the European Union and clearly that’s a risk as we move forward into the next year.  We also gain funding from charitable sources, across a whole range of different types, across a whole range of different sectors. So it’s a very mixed portfolio which I think reflects the fact that lots of groups are very interested in water. And also the impacts they have on the environment, ecosystems, but also on people as well. So a wide array of funding sources. And clearly one thing we’d like to think about is philanthropic donations and possibilities in that space but I’m sure [0:48:31] colleagues can speak more about that.

FN    Does anyone else want to add anything on the funding sources for research in this area? Stefan?

SK    Maybe just very briefly, as David said right at the end there are a whole range of charitable funders and institutions like the [0:48:52] Foundation that supported and funded Birmingham Institute of Forest Research for instance and water related research in the UK. We see more and more investment by private donors because clearly water is an issue that is affecting everyone and the water related impacts globally are affecting everyone.

IL    And then if I might add as well, just building on that, particularly now as we’re moving more and more towards a solutions-focused approach to the research, we’re developing models whereas the research moves from lab or field or concept through to what’s called technology readiness levels’, so through to being deployed or being suitable for deployment in real industrial scenarios or really in areas where there are major pollution problems.  We’re also looking at building a portfolio model where end users – such as industry or governments or things – are co-developing the solutions and co-funding the solutions, so really moving that sort of co-developmetn and co-fudning model forward as well.

FN    OK.  We have another question. I’m going to read it out because I’m not sure that I’m fully familiar with the content of it.  That is, is water footprinting the new carbon footprinting for black belts? For example, innovation enabler and ESG circular economy multipier [0:50:40]. So pehrpas you may be familiar with the idea of water footprinting, so perhaps if anyone would like to pick up that question.

RC    I’ll just offer a few quick remarks from my kind of work. The UK government is committeed to tackling its water footprint and what it sort of means by that when they talk about it is how much water we’re iimporting through our products, how much water we’re using for agriculture.  A lto of our food maybe doesn’t come from the UK, the clothes we wear don’t come from the UK, so what water we’re using and how do we make sure that the water in those supply chains is sustainable.  There’s a whole area of work going on from a lot of different countries and I think we’ve seen campaigns around maybe the sort of big clothing companies that they should be reducing the amount of water they use, we’ve seen bottled water campaigns, so there’s quite a few civil society and accountability campaigns going on.  In terms of relating to the kidn of carbon footprinting, we do have organisations such as the Carbon Disclosure Project which has a water programme, so they’re wanting to know how much water companies are using around the globe in say producing meat or clothing or drinks. So there’s a lot of work going on there and what we’re finding is that the number of companies that are reporting to organisations such as CDP is increasing, but obviously it’s not everybody so how do we sort of bring more companies into that?  It’s an area of work that people are looking at at the moment.  I’ll hadn back to you.

FN    Any other comments from the panel on the issue of water footprinting?

SK    Just very briefly maybe. It’s interesting that it was mentioned together with carbon footprinting and of course both water footprinting and carbon footprinting are intrinsically connected. There are some, parti8culary in the beginning, carbon offsetting schemes – again, a lot of unintended consequences in offsetting sfchemes that may have helped us to reduce carbon, or compensate for carbon use, but that use signfiicnat amounts of water, in particularly in reforestation schemes etc.  So it shows again the wickedness of the problem.

FN    It does indeed. Yeah, thanks a lot for that, Stefan, it really does.  I think the questions have been quite challenging and they have, as you said, really illustrated and fed well into the theme of Wicked Water, so water as a wicked problem, and I think the discussion, the questions and the solutions we’ve put forward have really tried to address the Wicked Water problem and its complexity. I think we’ve really seen that and that encapsulated water footprinting idea really illustrates that well.   So I think we’re getting quite close to 7pm, so I would like to wrap up by firstly thanking all of the panellists. I think they’ve done a great job this evening in really putting forward some very complex ideas and giving us a great sense of the important work that they’re doing and how it really is relevant to policy and practice. So I’d like to thank David, Stefan, Iseult and Rachel for their great contributions and thank you very much for giving your time this evening as well. I’d like to thank the alumni team for their behind the scenes support, and all of you the attendees for being with us this evening. Thank you so much for being here and for your questions.  So I’d like to remind you that this series is continuing so if you do have any particular areas of interest in relation to research and you’d like to see a webinar on that partiucilar topic, please do get in touch with our alumni relations team and let them know and they’ll reaely appreciate hearing your ideas and suggestions.  WE’ll be sending round an email tomorrow asking for your feedback on this event, so please do look out for that and spend a few minutes on completing the survey. And next month we’ll have a panel, including Professors Nick Loman, Alan McNally and Alice Roberts on the topic of virology and Covid-19. So very topical of course and more information will be available on that in due course.  So please look out for that and sign up and I’m sure that will be a great evening and informative. Obviously it’s a very dynamic situation as weel with learning about Covid-19. So thank you again for being with us, it’s been a great pleasure. I’ve learnt a lot myself – a fantastic team we have at Birmingham working on many aspects of water quality, quantity and access.