Utrecht University: Utrecht researchers work on complex drought issues

June 17 it is Desertification and Drought Day. The Netherlands is used to keeping and getting water out as quickly as possible; after all, about a quarter of the country is below sea level. But since the prolonged drought of recent years, it has become increasingly clear that it is also important to retain water in the Netherlands, and to acquire knowledge to answer complex questions about drought. Can we, for instance, predict dry periods in order to adjust water management plans? And how far into the future can we see? But also: how big is the chance that conflicts over water will arise? A selection of innovative techniques and new research on drought.

Conflict risk around drought and climate change
People need water, and there is only so much of it. Jannis Hoch external linkand Sophie de Bruin external link, researchers at the Faculty of Geosciences at the UU, are developing a model to map long-term risks of whether and to what extent a shortage or abundance of water plays a role in conflict. For example, due to reduced crop yields due to drought, or the impact of flooding.

Nobody else in the Netherlands is doing research into conflict risks in the long term.

Jannis Hoch, Sophie de Bruin
Sophie de Bruin en Jannis Hoch
“These water-related conflict risks are not yet taken into account in water management models and policies on, for example, climate mitigation and socio-economic development,” the researchers say. The models developed by Hoch and De Bruin are based on historical conflict events from all over the world.

“The fact that this is a new and as of yet quite unexplored subject makes it extremely interesting to carry out this research. Nobody else in the Netherlands is doing research into conflict risks in the long term. In policy, often only the short term is taken into account, not the long term that we are investigating. The fact that so much is involved – models, policy, environment and history, makes it very interdisciplinary.”

Predicting drought for water management plans
Since the dry summer of 2018, water managers such as Rijkswaterstaat have a greater need to be able to see dry periods coming earlier and act accordingly. That is why Sandra Hauswirth external link, PhD student at the Faculty of Geosciences, is investigating ways to make drought forecasts as quickly as possible using as much reliable data as possible. “So far, I have developed about five computer models and I am trying to put them together in such a way that they make sense with as little information as possible, and are also easy to use,” Hauswirth says. “And we succeeded: the models work well.”

The interface between research and application is what makes my PhD research so interesting.

Sandra Hauswirth
With data on precipitation, evaporation and the amount of water flowing through the Rhine, the young researcher can already look slightly little into the future. “We can now predict how high the Rhine will be in a few weeks’ time, and based on this, Rijkswaterstaat can make decisions on how to distribute the water across the Netherlands, for example, by discharging water to the sea or by keeping it in, for example in the IJsselmeer.” She is now working on the next step to use those predictions to look weeks to months into the future.

“The technical side of the research was a bit of a challenge, as I had little experience in building complex computer models. But I also enjoy learning something new that is relevant to the daily lives of many people. The interface between research and application is what makes my PhD research so interesting!”

Reducing the pressure on the freshwater supply
The availability of freshwater supplies and combatting water scarcity and drought also have a legal and administrative side. Legal researcher Herman Kasper Gilissen external link, associate professor of administrative law and environmental law, from the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, is involved in various research projects related to drought. One of those projects is Aquaconnect, where, in addition to six other Dutch universities, a large number of parties from the water sector work together. In short, Aquaconnect focuses on reducing the pressure on the freshwater supplies in the Netherlands, especially by increasing water availability. Gilissen: “This involves boosting the self-sufficiency of regions in the Netherlands and tapping into currently unusable water resources. Think, for example, of the reuse of waste water and the use of brackish groundwater.”

The solutions are mainly technical in nature, but their implementation involves important legal and institutional questions.

Gilissen continues: “The solutions are mainly technical in nature, but their implementation involves important legal and institutional questions. How are the quality requirements of that water guaranteed? Who is responsible for the purification and supply of the water and what responsibilities do this entail? How is the legal-administrative framework embedded within the existing frameworks of the freshwater supply? How are possible risks handled? I can go on and on. I’ve been dealing with these kinds of questions for a while now, as a researcher. This fall, a PhD candidate is joining this new research programme.” Researchers from the Faculty of Geosciences are also taking part in Aquaconnect: Professor Marc Bierkens and two PhD candidates. They will build advanced surface water-groundwater models in which they can simulate, among other things, the storage of fresh and salt groundwater and the extraction of brackish water.

In March 2021, the Dutch Research Council made more than four million euros available for the AquaConnect programme. On top of that, companies, governments and societal organisations will contribute two million euros. The programme will start in September 2021.

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