How do you personally and professionally relate to water? What role did water play in your choice of education?
My passion for water-related studies came initially from my interest in geology. I have always loved the outdoors and been intrigued by the physical processes that have shaped our landscapes. I grew up by the sea and was fortunate enough to study geology in Cornwall, undertaking lots of fieldwork along the coast. Learning about the importance of water and water-related process in hydrogeology within my undergraduate, I wanted to know more about how we can manage this resource.
I was brought up to be conscious about the amount of water we use and the privilege of access to plentiful water in the UK. With the water crisis that the world is currently facing I was drawn towards learning more about water and what needs to be done to tackle some of the challenges including water shortage, and quality concerns. I have a specific interest in development studies. My passion for water and development studies intersected with WASH, leading me to my current study of water security in Kenya in my PhD.
Out of a professional context, I love sea swimming and running along coastal paths. I feel at peace watching the eb and flow of the tide; it brings back many happy memories.
How often have you used remote sensing technology in your water-related work, what was the value added, and what were the challenges? Are there any user requirements of the water sector in terms of space technology and its usability that have not been sufficiently addressed by the space sector?
Whilst not yet having used remote sensing in my water-related work, within my time as an intern at UNOOSA I have become fascinated with the possibilities that space technologies offer. Having learnt about their potential applications, I hope to be able to use such technologies in my future work.
I did utilise remote sensing when studying for my undergraduate degree in geology. I explored the use of remote sensing in mineral exploration, which has implications for the water sector, for example the impact that exploration has on water quality and the use of water in certain methods of mineral extraction. In addition, whilst undertaking my dissertation: mapping the geology of Aliaga in Spain, I used remotely sensed images in my reconnaissance surveys to enable a better understanding of the geology in the field. Discerning the broad geological formations from such images gives insight into past climates and features of the area such as rivers, streams, and glaciers.
I believe that better dissemination of space technologies to water providers in lower-middle income countries (LMIC) is very important. For example, there are many data gaps in the SDG 6 indicators in Africa. Insufficient data means nobody knows whether there is progress or stagnation. For example, there is no data available on wastewater treatment (6.3.1) or water use efficiency (6.4.1), making it impossible to monitor progress. The poor transfer of technologies, and lack of capacity building, infrastructure, or funding may be limiting uptake of space technologies, despite their potential for data collection.
With a background in geology and WASH, where do you see the biggest but unexploited potential of space technologies to water related problems in those sectors?
I believe the exploration of groundwater still has huge untapped potential for the space sector. Currently groundwater cannot be specifically detected using space technologies, but the amount of stored water in a region can be estimated. This relies on other parameters and also on modelling. I hope that in the future, as the capabilities of space technology keep improving, that aquifers will be easily detectable from space and that changes in storage will be easier to monitor. Groundwater is a more reliable and extensive water source than surface water. There are large reserves across the African continent but data and knowledge of reserves is lacking. If properly managed, which requires sufficient data, groundwater can be a great asset for addressing the needs of some of the countries facing the most severe water challenges.
Additionally, the use of space technologies in sanitation is currently under-explored. As the resolution and accessibility of remotely sensed images keeps improving, and prices decline, I believe the potential in sanitation will increase. For example, monitoring open defecation, and latrine availability from remote sensing will hopefully become easier. This is important for monitoring progress towards the SDGs. Sanitation is sometimes not given as much attention as water. However, the two must work in tandem, because poor sanitation for example means that water sources are more susceptible to contamination, undermining progress in water quality.
Do you think there is a barrier for people proficient in water related domains to use space-based technology and data? If so, what do you believe can be done to ease the use of space technologies for researchers or practitioners with no experience in that field? What can you recommend that helped you?
For people that have not been exposed to space-based technologies, using them can seem daunting. This is definitely how I have felt in the past, even with exposure to some of these technologies during my studies. Such technologies can often seem very complex and difficult to use.
The abundance of online training workshops and webinars are a good place to start for anyone in the water sector looking to expand their knowledge of space-based technologies. From introductions to remote sensing for water resources, to more advanced tutorials for using specific technologies, there is something for everyone.
Also, I know that in a lot of institutions there will likely be some people using space-based technologies in their work. Even if their job is not specifically water-related, their knowledge and expertise can be very useful and transferable to water related domains. I would therefore suggest that wider networking is important.
What are the technical and social characteristics influencing year-round water security?
The main variable influencing year-round water security is physical availability linked to seasonality of weather patterns. For countries with severe dry periods, water sources can dry up completely, whilst during rainy seasons, water can be abundant but also create risk of flooding. Linked to this is the occurrence of natural disasters, which may temporarily affect piped water supply, for example if electricity supply is lost or if pipes burst.
Another technical factor is the breakage of water infrastructure (pipes, hand pumps, water tanks etc.) over time and an inability to mend it. This may be caused by social factors such as lack of knowledge about how to maintain and fix it and lack of access to markets of spare parts, leaving communities without a water source.
Water quality tends to vary across the year. Whether this impacts the organoleptic qualities of the water (taste, smell, colour etc.) or not will affect whether users change their behaviour. For example, if people perceive the microbiological water quality of their regular source to be lower in the rainy season, or if a source becomes more saline in the dry season, they may choose not to use that source. This may leave people with less water supply and therefore security.
Governance of water sources is another factor. Water sources need to be properly managed and maintained in order to provide for people’s needs. If this is not the case, then sources will become degraded. If, when the physical availability of some sources is lower, no alternative source is offered due to neglect and poor management, then people will suffer. Regarding local governance, cost and abstraction limits are often imposed by community water groups and will sometimes vary through the year depending on expected availability. This may subsequently impact the amount of water that people are able or willing to access.
You are currently enrolled in a PhD programme and focus your research on how the provision, perceived quality, and water user’s behaviour of multiple water sources in drylands impacts water security, using the example of sand dams in rural Kenya. Can you elaborate on that?
I began my PhD at Cranfield in October 2019, with the aim of learning more about water security, especially in LMIC. In the first year, I undertook M.Sc modules in WASH, including emergency water supply, communities and development, and water resource engineering. These modules helped to focus my interest and to create my research questions. This was an important process, as the programme I am enrolled on gives the researchers a lot of freedom to develop their own research questions, with the support of project partners.
I chose to focus on sand dams, as there was active sand dam research taking place at Cranfield. This enabled me to fit into a project, knowing that I could make an impact within ongoing research. Sand dams are small dams built across ephemeral streams. Across a few seasons, sand builds up behind the dams, within which water accumulates in the rainy season, ready to provide water in the dry season when other water sources are compromised. Water is accessed either via hand pumps, scoop holes (hand dug holes), or pooled water at the base of the dam. They are an important, small scale rainwater harvesting technique, which occur mainly in east Africa, with the majority in Kenya. When rainwater tanks and surface waters are unavailable in the dry season, sand dams should still contain a store of water, thus improving communities’ water security. I had never heard of them before starting at Cranfield, but with my background in geology, I was keen to work on a project related to geology and physical sciences.
Communities with sand dams very rarely rely on the dams to provide all of their water needs. The subsequent practice of Multiple Water Source Use (MWSU) is common across much of the world, but research is in short supply. This is why I chose to frame my research around MWSU. I am intrigued by the fact that many people, even with access to ‘improved’ water sources, continue using ‘unimproved’ ones. This may be for many reasons, from perceptions of quality, distance to sources, perceived safety, abstraction limits, and social acceptability to name a few. I have been analysing abstraction data from 26 sand dam hand pumps, to assess whether they are providing a year-round water supply. I am researching why some sand dams are not being used throughout the whole of the dry season and whether this is linked to perceived quality, preference of other sources, physical availability etc.
Do you plan to use space technology for your research and if so, how?
Currently, I am not planning on using space technologies in my PhD project. However, I am intrigued, as a side project, to explore the use of remotely sensed data in assessing the contribution that sand dams can make to groundwater recharge and groundwater supplies. There is some uncertainty whether the main purpose of sand dams is to store water in the sand or to facilitate aquifer recharge, but recent research suggests that they shouldn’t be treated as isolated water storage structures. I am unsure whether the contribution that sand dams make to aquifer recharge is large enough to be able to monitor from remote sensing. Cm scale changes in water level, from changes in mass can be estimated using GRACE data, however a spatial resolution of >150,000 km2 limits applicability on a small scale. However, with constant innovations and improvements in technologies it would be something that I am interested to explore. Whilst the scope would not be there for an individual dam, there may be application in areas with numerous dams in close proximity.
What do you consider as the biggest challenge in international collaboration on water?
One challenge I would reinforce is lack of data. International collaboration is important, in part because of shared water resources across borders. If nations do not work together on the management of such resources, there inevitably becomes winners and losers. However, it is difficult for such collaboration if data on such water resources is missing. For example, if it is unknown where a water source originates or how much volume a shared aquifer holds, it is difficult to collaboratively manage the resource.
Additionally, different nations have different agendas and priorities when it comes to resources, so collaborative partnerships may be uneven and difficult to sustain if some nations are less invested in water management for example. Countries, especially water stressed ones, will understandably be very protective over their water resources. There have been and continue to be many conflicts over shared water resources. Nations may seek to protect and manage the portion of a water source in their own country without considering the importance of managing the source in its entirety across different nations.
Having been an intern at UNOOSA, what were your main lessons learnt for a future career in water resource management?
My main take-away lesson from my time at UNOOSA with Space4Water would firstly be the importance of cross-collaboration and networking. Space4Water combines the application of space and water, bringing together two disciplines’ stakeholders and interested parties in one place. I saw a lot of collaboration with organisations outside of UNOSSA, which I believe is key to widening participation and knowledge on both sides. So often, organisations and researchers alike are very siloed. I personally believe that a more interdisciplinary approach is needed to tackle the greatest challenges we face, both water related and not.
Secondly, the importance of continuous learning for everyone, whether they have worked within water resource management for 1 year or 50 years stood out. The sector moves and changes so quickly, with new innovations and practices being developed regularly. I believe to manage our water resources most effectively, we need to be up to date with the latest thinking and not get too stuck in comfortable ways of doing things.
Lastly, would be the importance of indigenous knowledges. Since starting my studies, I have been very aware of positionality and privilege and the complexity that is researchers from outside a specific context researching in those contexts – contexts which they often do not know as well as local researchers. The internship allowed me to explore in more depth the importance of local knowledges and different ways of collecting such data and what you could or should be doing with such data.
Last, but not least, what is your favourite aggregate state of water?
My favourite aggregate state of water would have to be liquid. Liquid water sustains life on Earth in the form of oceans for marine life, rainfall for plants, and subsequent drinking water for all animals. Liquid water has mesmerizing properties. From the strength of ocean currents to the delicacy of rain drops; I love watching liquid water in all of its guises.