CANADIAN WINS STOCKHOLM WATER PRIZE FOR
RAISING AWARENESS OF GLOBAL GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION
By Suzanne Forcese
“Water is the universal link between human survival, our climate system and sustainable global development,”
Dr. John Cherry, Winner of the 2020 Stockholm Water Award.
According to The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016, the world could face a 40% global water deficit by 2030. This staggering figure is only projected to worsen with extended droughts as a likely consequence of climate change, relentless urbanization and crop irrigation for the ever-booming population.
Dr. John Cherry, adjunct professor in the University of Guelph School of Engineering, and principal investigator at the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research, was named the 2020 winner of the Stockholm Water Prize on the United Nations World Water Day, March 22, 2020. The award is presented for discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of groundwater vulnerability. Raising awareness of the global groundwater contamination crisis has been the focus of Cherry’s life-long research which has led to new, more efficient methods of tackling the problem of saving our most precious resource.
WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Cherry whose journey as Canada’s first hydrogeologist specializing in groundwater contamination followed a series of chance encounters. “My parents who were film-makers with the National Film Board moved us from Ottawa back to their native Saskatchewan when I was 16. Had it not been for that move I would not have heard a guest speaker at the University of Saskatchewan who inspired me to study the emerging science of hydrogeology,” Cherry reflected. The journey continued with his first position as professor at the University of Manitoba in 1967 when at the insistence of a second year engineering student and her neighbors in The Whiteshell he found himself involved with mitigating well contamination in the Manitoba community.
“At the time there was no research on groundwater contamination so I began writing a book.” At a 1975 conference, Cherry met up with R. Allan Freeze who was also beginning a manuscript. They decided to collaborate. In 1979, Groundwater, the first book on groundwater contamination was published, becoming the only resource available for university students at the time.
“I got into it early. In the 1960’s there was hardly any contamination of groundwater. I saw it unfold. Groundwater contamination is more widespread and serious than society believes. It’s always a surprise to a community when they discover their water is contaminated.”
Almost half of the world’s population depends on groundwater for domestic use –including reserves that provide drinking water for one-third of Canadians. Many also rely on it for irrigation. “Groundwater as an issue gets ignored in Canada and in many other countries. It’s going on underground so you can’t see it, but it’s the backbone of the freshwater cycle.”
The global importance of groundwater is enhanced by the fact that groundwater is transferred around the world in our food as virtual water. Food is coming from countries where the groundwater is unsustainable due to large scale irrigation causing the over-pumping of aquifers.
Worldwide groundwater is imperiled by pollutants from agricultural fertilizers. “Much of the nitrogen in chemical fertilizers accounts for the contamination of drinking water.” Road salt, septic systems, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, PFAS are also among the major culprits that take up residence in groundwater for decades to centuries. “Contamination episodes always come as a surprise because comprehensive groundwater monitoring is rare and responsibilities for science-based predictions are obscure.”
“The fresh groundwater zone that exists beneath the human inhabited continental parts of the globe is on average 200 metres thick and the number of locations where contaminants have been allowed to enter this relatively thin veneer of fresh water may be in the tens of millions or more.”
For Canadians, a large part of the problem, according to Cherry, is that in Canada, water falls under provincial jurisdiction and has become a ‘tragedy of the commons’.
“The provinces are not in the research business. Other countries in the world that view water as a national responsibility can provide us with valuable examples. With 30% of Canadians dependent on well water and almost no political clout, Canada is in the lower ranks compared to other nations as far as water governance is concerned.”
“Groundwater is intertwined with subtlety in the Earth’s freshwater cycle to sustain humanity with drinking water and food and to provide ecological health to our rivers, lakes and wetlands. But groundwater is exploited unsustainably. With booming population and climate change, the Planet’s water problems are headed towards the unimaginable. Solutions require understanding through better education, monitoring, and changes in governance,” Dr. Cherry told WT.
In August 2020, Cherry will launch the Groundwater Project, a series of e-books and other educational resources to be made available free online in several languages. (gw-project.org) Currently, more than 200 volunteer scientist and engineers from 23 countries on 6 continents are involved in the preparation of e-book chapters. Over 500 chapters, organized in over 60 knowledge domains will be prepared over the next few years.
“As I learned more about groundwater over the last 40 years it became my goal to create educational materials for all users -- from water experts to university students to children.”
The project is based at the University of Guelph where Cherry is principal investigator with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research led by Dr. Beth Parker. The institute studies groundwater quality and interactions between groundwater and surface water. The institute specializes in developing and applying sophisticated groundwater monitoring technologies that have been adopted worldwide.
Cherry’s hope for the Groundwater Project is to bring best practices for science and governance together.
Cherry’s passion to bring attention to groundwater is also a driver in his desire to serve remote communities where safe drinking water is still the fundamental link for human well-being. In many areas of developed countries groundwater is over-exploited but in the poorest parts of the world groundwater in general is underexploited.
Cherry is in the process of testing his latest technology – portable drills for safe water wells. “Many people in remote communities rely on drinking water from springs formed of discharging groundwater but these springs are commonly contaminated. A promising alternative is to drill small wells at the springs to tap deeper, clean groundwater before it discharges to the surface.” Once tested, Cherry is planning to take his “back-pack” drills to remote First Nations communities in Canada. “It’s not about drilling them a well but giving them the tools to drill their own well to provide safe drinking water.”
For Dr. John Cherry who prefers not to be in the limelight of the Stockholm Water Award attention, he is grateful nonetheless for the attention the award is bringing to our global groundwater.
“Of the five realms that humans need for survival and our quest for sustainability – air, atmosphere, continental surface waters, oceans and groundwater, and their capacity to assimilate emissions -- we know the least about groundwater. The first steps towards reversing that trend must include monitoring and education about all aspects of groundwater to serve the full spectrum of stakeholders.”
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