Water4all: enhancing engagement for groundwater solutions

A well in a well - water container in a river
Foto: istock.com/LuisPinaPhotography

The government of Catalonia proclaimed a state of emergency because of the severe drought in this region. This not only illustrates the effects of climate change but also the urgency for water storage solutions based on local environmental conditions. And to enhance the contribution of local authorities, businesses, and communities. It is precisely in this field researchers of the Utrecht University School of Economics (U.S.E.) have received funding from the EU programme Water4All. They will investigate nature-based solutions that might reduce the extreme effects of climate change and contribute to safeguarding the water supply system. The researchers will address this issue by exploring stakeholder value perceptions and developing suitable communication formats to foster stakeholder collaboration and consequent implementation of these nature-based interventions.  

Eight Dutch projects have been funded In the EU programme 'Water4all'. In total, the Dutch participation encompasses over 2.3 million euros, of which 1.6 million euros is jointly funded by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, and NWO, and 700,000 euros is funded by the European Commission.

The research project at Utrecht University is entitled ‘Climate Extremes buffering through groundwater flow-based Managed Aquifer Recharge and Public Engagement (ClimEx-PE)’and the researchers operate within an international, multidisciplinary team led by prof. Judit Mádl-Szőnyi from Eötvös Loránd Universiteit (Hungary).

I wanted to be involved because it is super important that these nature-based solutions get picked up – they do not always need huge investments necessarily but different stakeholders participating and contributing what they can, says Katrin Merfeld from the Utrecht University School of Economics (U.S.E.), who will be leading the work package regarding the creation of awareness and stakeholder engagement – both of crucial importance for getting these interventions off the ground.

The project aims to understand the stakeholders, to educate them about the groundwater solutions, trying to get them more engaged in supporting their uptake, Merfeld adds.

Matching the needs in time

Ádám Tóth, a hydrogeologist also involved in the project, explains what we talk about when we talk about these groundwater solutions, the so-called Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) systems: They are engineering solutions for storing surplus water into the ground – to be used later. We need them to match the needs in time. If, for instance, there is a flood, the water usually will be lost in the rivers and finally in the ocean. In periods of drought, this freshwater is not available anymore. So it is better to put it into the ground when you have it because there will be no evaporation (because of the sunlight), and the quantity will remain more or less the same.

It will not remain in the same place all the time but will move underground in a slow process. At this same time, it can be naturally, biologically, and chemically filtered – without using chemicals, because of the underground structure.

An aquifer is an underground unit that can store water, for example, sandstone. Sandstone has space to store water, and you can easily abstract water from it. Engineering solutions to get the water to these aquifers can be, for instance, an artificial pond or an agricultural field from where the water is infiltrating into the ground. Other solutions are creating wells, shafts, trenches, etc., from which you can inject water into the ground.

These solutions can also decrease the potential for flooding and can be beneficial for regenerating groundwater-dependent ecosystems. Suppose we intervene with these solutions and align them with the water cycle. In that case, they will be more efficient and natural - instead of creating something contradictory to the site specifics, which often happens.

Considering the larger picture of the environment

Sometimes the natural underground conditions and processes are not considered very well because there is an urgent need for water storage, Tóth continues. This is the added value here: we try to study and analyze the flow of water first. According to the local conditions, we can plan an intervention. Our research will take place in three specific locations: Ireland, Spain, and Hungary. The location in Hungary, for example, is a semi-desert, getting more and more arid. We really need to implement something to result in the availability of drinking water for the people there.

We tend to forget the underground water solutions. And usually, there is some resistance.

When there is no rainfall, for example, in summer, the only source of water is coming from the underground. But usually, this is invisible, and people don’t think about it; people aren’t educated about it. They are mostly just aware of the ‘water circle’ (rain falling in rivers, moving to oceans, evaporating and falling down as rain). But we tend to forget the underground water solutions. And usually, there is some resistance against these interventions from local citizens, Tóth adds, because of their lack of knowledge. But policymakers often lack this too.

Understanding stakeholders and enhancing their engagement

This is where the research of the School of Economics comes in, Katrin Merfeld says: We want to raise more (public) awareness for these types of solutions. And; we will investigate what is needed in terms of stakeholder engagement. Understanding what the added value for policy advisors and decision-makers of governments, public institutions, NGO’s, international organisations, business and industry and local communities is to participate in this. And motivating people based on the benefits they strive for. These can be financial but can also entail community benefits, health benefits, or benefits for social cohesion, for example. Figuring out the true benefits that the different stakeholders want to have is not necessarily easy.

Once you’ve discovered the real needs of stakeholders, these usually are what works best to motivate them to actually do the things that are objectively good (but until now have not been done). We want to have more understanding of how to engage them with this type of benefit creation and enhance their engagement with these groundwater solutions, Merfeld concludes.

More information

Would you like to know more about this research project, please contact Katrin Merfeld: k.merfeld@uu.nl.