Could Groundwater Management Be the Sustainable Solution for Addressing Extreme Hydrological Events?

Text: World Water Day - ClimEx-PE An international multidisciplinary reseach team build within the R&I CHARM-EU dimension and beyond. Ilustration: a girl and a bou watering the soil.
Thu, 03/21/2024 - 16:52

A nature-based Managed Aquifer Recharge developed in Hungary will be tested in different climatic areas of Spain and Ireland

In a context of increasing extreme hydrological phenomena such as floods and droughts, groundwater, although its dynamics are much less understood, is as crucial a water reserve as surface water. Managing its reserves during droughts or using the system to store excess water during heavy rainfall is an option that replicates the functioning of nature itself, making it sustainable and respectful of the environment and all species that inhabit it.

To work on a nature-based solution that mitigates the impact of these extreme climate events and contributes to securing water supplies, a multidisciplinary team within the CHARM-EU R&I dimension has developed the project titled ClimEx-PE (Climate Extremes buffering through groundwater flow-based Managed Aquifer Recharge and Public Engagement) with an innovative approach called Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). The international and multidisciplinary team of researchers from this project are led by the hydrogeologist Professor Judit Mádl-Szőnyi from Eötvös Lórand’s Faculty of Science and unites researchers from CHARM-EU partner universities (University of Barcelona, Trinity College Dublin and Utrecht University) and beyond (University of Zaragoza).

Water Innovative proposal to Scaling Up for Global Impact

“Due to the increasing global population and water demand, minimizing the impacts of droughts and floods and ensuring safe water supply for humanity and ecosystems is currently one of the most challenging societal issues," explains Mádl-Szőnyi as Principal Investigator .

In this sense, "investigating the functioning of groundwater systems will generate procedures that allow for the integration of these systems to buffer the effects of extreme episodes and also for the better utilization of the water resources they can generate," points out Jose F. Garcia, chemist and director of The Water Research Institute (IdRA) from the University of Barcelona.

Aquifer systems have a vast storage capacity to mitigate the undesired effects of these extreme events through technical solutions such as Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). The ClimEx-PE project proposes a new integrated approach considering natural groundwater flow systems in technical MAR solutions. “So, we can extend MAR's positive effects from the local to the basin-scale by utilizing natural processes and thus creating an upscaled approach, termed nature-based MAR (NB-MAR)," explains Mádl-Szőnyi.

The project will test the strategy developed for the Duna-Tisza Interfluve (Hungary) at ELTE in a Spanish and Irish study areas with different climatic and geological environments.

Groundwater systems are region-specific. As an example, one of the "living labs" to be studied is the La Muga basin in Girona (Spain), where various activities including agriculture, livestock farming, industry, tourism, and urban settlements take place.

"This basin has a hydrological dynamic that includes groundwater. The studies conducted in this basin will be specific to its geographical, climatological, and usage characteristics but will also generate knowledge and generalizable guidelines for other environments," explains Garcia.

Multidisciplinary Expertise and Communication, the Key to Project Success

A generalized methodology for the application of this NB-MAR approach was developed by natural scientists, such as hydrogeologists, but in the project, climatologists, chemists, and water scientists will work with it. Raising awareness of groundwater-related issues, and the application of MAR and the newly proposed NB-MAR require the engagement of stakeholders. Therefore, geographers and economists will explore the social and economic impacts of NB-MARs.

"Based on these findings, our lawyers and geographers will improve evidence-based policy and decision-making on a national and international level by creating policy briefs, guidelines, and recommendations. Finally, sustainability marketers, educational specialists, and filmmakers will create digital, communication, and educational packages, as well as value propositions and social marketing strategies," explains Judit.

Given the different socio-economic features characterizing these regions and influencing the application, this initiative will promote cooperation among multiple institutions and stakeholders. Therefore, the project can improve awareness, communication, and knowledge from communities to regional planners and national policymakers about what NBS, MAR, or groundwater can offer.

Although one of the most crucial freshwater reserves can be underground as groundwater, the general public's knowledge is limited and based on oversimplified concepts, researchers concluded. That’s why effective communication is vital.

"From a communication perspective, the project includes setting up a website and a dashboard regarding stakeholder awareness to make our project and its findings accessible to the public. Further, we have various reports to be completed throughout the project, for example, early on, one on the societal and economic aspects of MAR. Later, we have one on the methodology to identify mitigation needs, the NB-MAR methodology or a White Book" explains Dr. Katrin Merfeld, Assistant Professor in Marketing at Utrecht School of Economics.

Policy changes to ensure equitable access to safe water resources

The consequences of climate change influence the water sector globally, but regional differences exist. Therefore, flexible, nature-based approaches and technologies have to be developed, focusing on improving climate resilience. “To improve the policy changes needed at the global level to prioritize water security and ensure equitable access to safe water, capacity-building and knowledge transfer are necessary to disseminate water science and sanitation advancements, particularly from developed to developing countries” Judit says. Additionally, she highlights the necessity for investments in new technologies to consider their energy and material requirements, as well as their climate resilience.

Researchers agreed on the importance of educational and communication tools in raising awareness about new technologies and approaches, emphasizing the need for bottom-up solutions tailored to local contexts. They also stress the role of individual stakeholders and the potential impact they can have. "When being more aware of the individual role, stakeholders consider sustainable actions and rethink their attitudes," says Merfeld. Garcia emphasizes, "A first step in this behavioral change is to reduce the wastage of this resource in activities or with attitudes completely detached from sustainability."

CHARM-EU: The Power of Collaboration

The ClimEx-PE project, which will begin in April 2024 , was one of the 27 winning projects selected for funding through the highly competitive Water4All Joint Transnational Call for research and innovation projects and has been granted nearly 1 million euros for three years.

The idea of the project, developed in the CHARM-EU R&I dimension, was to bring researchers from different fields together and try to develop research ideas addressing the Sustainable Development Goals. Based on this idea, a preliminary team was formed. Later, the natural scientists in our team identified this call, and the other team members tried to contribute to making it a holistically feasible project.

"Without the CHARM-EU consortium and especially the TORCH project, we would have never found together as a group. We’re from completely different fields – and usually hydrologists and marketers are in different faculties. We would have simply never met – even if we were at the same institution. And certainly, we would not have discussed a joint project," conclude Merfeld.


More information