Addressing Challenges of Climate Change and its Impact on Water Resources for Acutely Vulnerable Regions

March 24, 2020
Dr Michael Singer

The theme for this year’s World Water Day (22nd March) is ‘water and climate change’ and how the two are inextricably linked. Dr Michael Singer, Senior Lecturer in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and Deputy Director of the Water Research Institute at Cardiff University explains how GW4 researchers, part of the GW4 Water Security Alliance, are helping to address the global challenge of climate change and its impact on water resources.

The increasing variability of rainfall, in terms of its magnitude, timing, and spatial patterns, creates challenges for water resource allocation on local and regional scales. In the last decade, the UK has experienced several years of below-normal rainfall that has hit the south and east of England particularly hard. These precipitation deficits resulted in serious impacts to groundwater and reservoir levels, posing risks to water supplies and the agricultural industry for this populated region.

In other parts of the world, the links between rainfall and livelihoods are much tighter, making these societies more vulnerable to climate change. For example, the Horn of Africa Drylands (HAD) is one of the most food insecure regions on Earth, where seasonal rainfall directly controls food production through subsistence rainfed agriculture and pastoralism (raising of livestock across the landscape). When the critical seasonal rains fail in HAD, as happened in 9 of the last 20 years, it sends shockwaves through society, leading to the need for massive humanitarian response, while eroding resilience, economic reserves, livestock herd size, and health. It appears that, under the influence of climate change, the ‘new normal’ in HAD is characterised by March-to-May drought about every other year. Despite the proliferation of continually updated climate information for the region, often from European sources (e.g. European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) and corresponding improvements in famine early warning systems, major uncertainties remain about the links between key seasonal climate variables and water scarcity in HAD, and the consequential impacts to livelihoods and wellbeing.

We have built a strong team of complementary Cardiff-and Bristol-based GW4 researchers, who are members of the GW4 Water Security Alliance (WSA), to address this global challenge. The GW4 Water Security Alliance is the largest UK water research consortium and one of the largest worldwide, with over 200 academics from across the four GW4 institutions. We began this work modestly through two Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) pump-priming grants awarded at the level of our individual universities (PIs Michaelides and Mitchell). These grants enabled us to begin collaborating and discussing how best to address the cascading challenge of linking climate to water to food production to human livelihoods. With financial support for two excellent researchers (Adloff and Quichimbo), we were also able to develop some of the core knowledge and methods that served as the platform for bidding for larger sources of funding. Both of the GCRF pump-priming grants have also resulted in research publications (forthcoming) that document the new knowledge gained from deeper analysis of climate data (Adloff) and the development of a new dryland-specific modeling framework for understanding the expression of climate in subsurface hydrologic storage (Quichimbo). Our new model incorporates critical theory of dryland climate and hydrology that is missing from existing modeling efforts and which may undermine their efficacy in predicting the responses of the regional water balance to climate change.

Building on these efforts, our interdisciplinary GW4 team including expertise in surface and groundwater hydrology, meteorology, climate science, drylands, numerical modelling, and computer science, was subsequently awarded two recent larger grants, both led by PI Michaelides: Drought Resilience In East African dryland Regions (DRIER), funded by The Royal Society Challenge-led Grants; and Mobile phone App Development for Drought Adaptation in Drylands (MADDAD), funded by UK Research and Innovation GCRF. DRIER is a project, in collaboration with social scientists from UEA, and researchers from University of Nairobi, Addis Ababa University, and FAO-SWALIM. DRIER builds upon the modeling from Quichimbo to facilitate the analysis of water storage in response to the changing climate across a part of the HAD region. MADDAD is a research effort to design a prototype mobile-phone app that can provide forecasts of water storage to the people who need the information to make critical decisions about climate adaptation. This research, in collaboration with computer scientists from Bristol and partners from University of Nairobi, is working in rural communities to understand their informational needs for making climate-related decisions. The new knowledge gained from this rural engagement will support co-development of a prototype app that will be field tested within these same communities.

We are hopeful that the increasing levels of funding to our motivated and energetic GW4 research team (with external partners) will enable us to address the challenges of water scarcity in the vulnerable HAD region, and thereby support adaptation to a changing climate. We also aim to produce new generalizable tools and knowledge that can be applied to other dryland regions of the world.

On this World Water Day 2020, we invite people to reflect both on the local challenges of water security posed by climate change in the UK (e.g., avoiding hose-pipe bans and mitigating impacts to agricultural production and pricing), and on the more severe and life-threatening challenges faced by dryland communities across the globe. We believe GW4 (especially the GW4 Water Security Alliance) can be an important vehicle for addressing both of these global challenges.

GW4 research team also includes: Dr Katerina Michaelides (Geography, Bristol), Dr Mark Cuthbert (Earth, Cardiff), Dr Dann Mitchell (Geography, Bristol), Markus Adloff (Geography, Bristol), Andrés Quichimbo (Earth, Cardiff), Dr Rafael Rosolem (Engineering, Bristol), Dr Daniel Hobley (Earth, Cardiff).