Birmingham has a long-standing reputation for undertaking research that addresses both natural and social science aspects of water including hydrology, water policy and governance. Our researchers are developing innovative and sustainable solutions to solve the water problems that societies are facing today. They explore the grand challenges in water research which require multidisciplinary approaches to address water resources in a changing environment from floods, droughts and resilience to the problems caused by human activities.

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Professor of Hydrology David Hannah, as one of the leaders in water research at the University of Birmingham, has in 2016 been appointed as UNESCO Chair in Water Sciences. He is spearheading efforts to increase interdisciplinary research and education on the global issue of water security and how to combat ‘wicked water’ problems and increase resilience of people and ecosystems.

Water scarcity is a major a source of global conflict. By informing and developing sustainable approaches to water resource management and adaptation policies, Birmingham is helping to further UNESCO’s global mandate “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture”.

This research is helping to raise understanding of the patterns and causes of water availability and to reduce uncertainty allowing better projections of what is likely to happen in future and for places for which we have no (or limited) data. To address the issue of data poor regions Professor Hannah says: ”We want to make better use of new technologies and so-called citizen science in hydrology by involving local people as observers in more participatory approaches for data collection, processing and interpretation.”

To meet the Chair’s aim to develop a transformative approach to tackle water problems which are difficult to solve due to lack of data and changing human needs, and enable sustainable development of finite water resources, we require a new way of addressing and rethinking the grand challenges related to water in a changing environment.

  1. Quantifying the nature and extent of change in hydrological stores, fluxes and quality of water resources
  2. Explaining the drivers and causes of space-time patterns of water resource variability including climate and land use change
  3. Reducing uncertainty of predictions under change

The recently initiated Birmingham Water Science Council addresses relationships between people, society and the environment; focusing on improving our understanding of the complex two-way interactions between those systems. This will allow us to better prepare for potential crises in water supply and to manage water resources in a more sustainable way. In interdisciplinary collaborations the Birmingham Water Council under the leadership of Prof. Krause investigate:

  • How enhanced agricultural nutrient loading can cause substantial increases in harmful greenhouse gas production
  • How emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, engineered nanoparticals and microplastics affect complex aquatic ecosystem functioning
  • How reactive transport and transformation processes of both old (legacy) and new (emerging) pollutants in conjunctions affects crucial ecosystem services.

The Politics of Water

Deepening our understanding of water science is vital, but our knowledge of water is incomplete without consideration of the wider social and political contexts that organise water’s management as a resource. Birmingham’s Dr Julian Clark examines these aspects of water governance: how the patterns of formal rules and informal social structures come together in different countries to influence decisions around water access and allocation.

We have learned that governance is not just about formal water laws: it considers the informalities that shape all human choices – especially the attitudes and beliefs that influence our everyday decisions. By investigating whether we are using our water in the most accessible way, and how we can improve local communities decision-making over water resources in the future, we can strive for a more equitable and sustainable framework for water allocation management.’

There are many unanswered questions in water governance which Dr Clark’s work seeks to address. Do we have the right mix of organizations and institutions to manage our water? Who gets to decide how water is allocated? And what arrangements can empower water management by local communities into the future? Water resource challenges are only set to intensify in future. This demands new and more creative governance approaches, sensitive not just to growing scientific knowledge but also to the needs and viewpoints of all of us.

Water Contamination

Professor Stefan Krause leads a research group analysing the impact of different interacting water quality stressors (e.g. exposure to pollutants and changed environmental conditions) by pioneering sensor network technology and “smart tracers” approaches to investigate microbial and biogeochemical process dynamics at groundwater-surface water interfaces. They are developing exciting new modelling strategies to explore the implications of environmental change on water transport and nutrient conditions in rivers (at the aquifer-river interface) to allow a comprehensive assessment of multi-stressor interactions.

Professor Krause has more than fifteen years’ experience in leading and managing large-scale international interdisciplinary and intersectoral research projects. His research also explores how land use changes, river- and floodplain restoration strategies affect biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and the potential release of greenhouse gas emissions from areas of agriculturally enhanced nutrient concentrations.

Hydrological Extremes

Hydrological extremes (droughts and floods), have major impacts on society and the ecosystem, which are expected to increase in the future. Dr Anne Van Loon leads Birmingham’s research on floods and droughts with a group of PhD students and postdocs and collaborating with colleagues in Birmingham, the UK and internationally.

In the current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), humanity is changing the climate, the land surface and the water system in unprecedented ways. We for example extract massive amounts of water from reservoirs and groundwater, which has intentional and unintentional consequences. We can manage water systems to prevent flooding and water scarcity, but by extracting water we are also making droughts worse and by paving our cities and gardens we are adding to the risk of flooding.

In various interdisciplinary projects and international networks Dr Van Loon and colleagues investigate how to manage society’s needs and the available water sources in a more sustainable way. ‘We need to work with people in communities across the world to help them deal with the consequences of floods and droughts more effectively,’ she says.

Dr Anne Van Loon says: ‘My colleagues Dr Rosie Day, Dr Mel Rohse, Dr Sally Rangecroft and I work with people in rural South Africa to combine the strengths of local knowledge with scientific methods. We believe we can help increase drought resilience by engaging local communities and authorities in creative experiments based on past drought stories and future drought model scenarios.’


UNESCO Chair in Water Science

University of Birmingham

Anne Van Loon's research group on Hydrological Extremes

Birmingham Water Science Council

Water Science:

Case Studies

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Drought in The Anthropocene ➤
Anne Van Loon on Twitter ➤
#droughtintheanthropocene ➤
#creativedroughtproject ➤
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