New international research partnership addresses global water shortage

16 May 2024

A major international research project is aiming to find new water sources to address the growing demand for water and the challenges posed by climate change.

The research consortium includes partners from Italy, Malta, Norway and the UK, with Dr Jordan Phethean from the University of Derby as the UK lead. The group has received €1m funding for a three-year project that seeks to locate and access more resilient water supplies across Europe.

With populations increasing, the demand for water is rising, whilst droughts are simultaneously becoming more frequent due to climate change. The UN estimates that two billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water, and according to the World Resources Institute, water demand around the world is projected to increase by between 20% and 25% by 2050.

The project, named RESCUE, is funded by Water4All, Horizon Europe (the EU’s research funding programme), and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It will explore whether deep-coastal aquifer resources can be used to extract water. These groundwater systems deep underground, or sometimes even under the seabed, contain water that can be suitable for domestic or agricultural use. Research estimates put the volume of water in offshore aquifers at 100 times greater than that extracted from the ground over the entire 20th century, yet there has been little exploration of these resources in Europe.

The work undertaken by the University of Derby team, Dr Jordan Phethean, Lecturer in Earth Sciences, and Dr Yiling Lu, Senior Lecturer in Engineering, focuses on computer simulations to predict the likelihood of deep-coastal aquifers being a source of freshwater. These simulations work in a similar way to weather forecasting simulations, but instead of calculating likely future wind and rain, the simulations try to understand how rainwater enters and flows through subsurface over thousands of years. When the conditions are right, fresh water can even be found below the seabed offshore.

Dr Jordan Phethean
Dr Jordan Phethean

Dr Phethean said:

“This long-term international research project has the capacity to make a real impact for UK and European individuals and businesses. Some European countries are already struggling with water shortages, and current approaches such as desalination can be expensive and energy intensive.

“Working with our European partners, and using the groundwater simulations generated here at the University of Derby, we are optimistic that we will be able to find and understand extensive new water resources.”

Other elements of the project will explore the electrical conductivity of the Earth’s subsurface using an electrical current to check groundwater salinities (as saltwater conducts electricity more easily than freshwater), as well as the legal frameworks that will facilitate the extraction of groundwater that crossing international borders, carried out by partners in Italy and Norway, respectively.

Find out more about research at the University of Derby.

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