One of the research areas within the Biogeochemistry Research Group, Trinity College, is water. Water is the only natural resource for which there is no substitute. We require it to live. Therefore, it is very valuable. Human beings need to drink ca. 2 litres of water a day to sustain themselves, healthily and hydrated. Without water, we survive only three days. In developed countries, access to clean drinking water is ensured; however, the story is different in developing and arid countries.
Over 10% of the world’s population (more than 780 million people) lack access to sufficient water for drinking and sanitation, defined as 20 litres/person/day. The distribution of this shortage is dictated by two things, climate and wealth. For example, the desert country of Kuwait receives less rainfall annually than Ireland does in one ‘fair’ month. Therefore, we might expect a low rate of water usage per person/day. However, Kuwait has one of the highest rates of water consumption in the world, at 600L/person/day (Al-Senafy, 2013 Pers. comm.). Why? Because it is one of the world’s top producers and net exporters of oil and thus a rapidly developing and wealthy country. Kuwait harvests 100% of the country’s domestic water requirement by desalinisation of saline groundwater and seawater, an expensive process. Thus, the distribution of access to water is governed not only by climate and precipitation rates, but also, and perhaps more so, by economics.
The geographical distribution of insufficient access to safe water closely follows that of economic infancy and fragility. In developing countries, the absence of methods to make water safe for consumption and use rather than an actual absence of water is responsible for water shortages. Due to this, in developing countries, millions of people die annually from water related illnesses such as diarrhoeal diseases (2.2 million, mostly children). With water so crucial for life, not always freely available, and in some cases coming at a high human and monetary cost, the number of conflicts over water has increased exponentially in the last 100 years. Political tension over water has arisen between Arab countries and Israel, India and Bangladesh, US and Mexico, and all ten countries boarding the river Nile. ‘Water’ and ‘war’ are two issues now frequently appearing in tandem.
In Ireland where rainfall is abundant and some aquifers, such as the karst western lowlands, periodically overflow with water, this precious resource is taken for granted. Here, pollution and wasteful use of drinking water are the significant issues. An increasing awareness of the need to control water use is reflected in the soon to be implemented water metering system. The Biogeochemistry Research Group in Trinity College studies the human interaction with groundwater (the source of a significant portion of the country’s drinking water, particularly in western karst regions) in the context of pollution. Human sources of pollution can include leaking septic tanks, untreated sewage, surface runoff, and farm activities, among others. One of the aims of the group’s research is to develop and use reliable techniques which enable discernment and determination of the main source(s) of pollution in order to address the issue and prevent tensions between those that pollute water and those that utilise it as a drinking water source.