Posted: Wednesday 30th December 2009

Securing the future of this plentiful, life-giving, yet devastating resource.

All life on earth began in water. Water remains fundamental to life: its security is crucial to the future of the planet and all life that exists on it. Yet, water can also be a hazard and too much of it can cause as much damage as not enough.

water@leeds, which was officially launched at a dedicated event on the 11th November 2009, is a new £2 million centre at the University of Leeds created to transform research into water related issues. The centre pools the talents of over 100 water experts across the University from very different fields – environment, engineering, law, geography, biology and the arts – into the largest grouping of its kind in Britain. Their expertise ranges from sedimentation in rivers, seas and lakes to extreme rainfall and urban drainage; peat bogs to glacial outburst flooding; water consumer issues to the restoration of historic water gardens – and much more!

The centre’s research will focus on the impacts of climate change on effective management of water in the environment and will examine new and sustainable ways to capture, store, treat, use, recycle and remove water. Amongst others we will aim to will tackle four pressing questions:

· How can we provide a sustainable supply of water to the world’s growing population, which is plentiful enough for irrigation, hydro-electricity and industrial production, yet safe enough to drink without risking water-related diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea?

· How can we predict and mitigate against the likely increase in flood risk and drought occurrence?

· How will climate change affect processes such as rainfall, river flows and sedimentation and the gradual disappearance of glaciers upon which so many rely for their daily supply of water?

· What are the microbial mechanisms at work within soils, tropical forests and peatlands which affect carbon storage and greenhouse gas concentrations?

Projects under way include investigating the importance of peat bogs as stores of carbon; using novel bacteria and fungi to treat contaminated water; exploring new and carbon efficient desalination technologies, and understanding how trade patterns influence water consumption globally. water@leeds directs a number of projects which have both national and international impact and include the EMBER project, water footprint concept and the Rio Paraná study.

On the UK stage, EMBER (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River systems) is a 3-year project to determine the environmental cost/benefits of rotational heather and grass burning in the UK uplands; particularly the influence on catchment hydrology and ecology. Despite rising concern about the environmental implications of moorland burning, detailed evaluations of the costs, benefits and sustainability of this practice are hampered by a lack of basic scientific data.

The need to quantify our use of water has led to members of the water@leeds team developing use of a ‘water footprint’ concept. Defined as the total volume of water needed for products and services (direct and indirect water consumption), the water footprint provides an indication of the water resources needed to support human populations. Footprints will vary spatially according to different environmental, economic, social and cultural contexts and models of this variation can be used to examine trends and consumption patterns. water@leeds researchers have also been involved in work assessing consumer water debt in the UK.

Internationally, water@leeds is heavily involved in a multidisciplinary study of the world’s 6th largest river system - the Rio Paraná. Big rivers such as the Rio Paraná have been surprisingly understudied, despite their global importance. This project, which is a collaboration between nine different universities from the UK, Argentina and the US, is examining at the morphology, flow, sedimentary deposits and evolution of the Rio Paraná in order to inform the global debate on the nature and future management of the worlds’ largest rivers.

These are just a glimpse into the range of work that water@leeds is involved in. The centre also offers training and education courses, innovation and product development assistance, consultancy services and a range of events open to everyone working within the varied world of water.

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