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Water at Source

John Cherry

A critical environmental challenge facing the world today is the lack of clean drinking water. Groundwater currently forms 96 per cent of the planet’s fresh water, and more than 50 per cent of the world's population depends on it. This has led to a shortage for the world’s poorest two billion people, who either consume polluted water or must travel a great distance to access clean water.

One of the world’s foremost water experts, Dr John Cherry, was in Hong Kong last month after attending an environmental conference in Shenzhen. The hydrogeologist is the 2016 recipient of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize and a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo. Dr Cherry warns that water shortage is a looming crisis that affects not only China, but the rest of the world.

What brought you to China?
I came for a conference organised by the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, a new university that is building a world-class groundwater research group.

I’m pleased to be here to learn more about the groundwater issues in China and meet with Chinese scientists. Over the years, we have discussed projects and this trip will lead to some useful collaborations down the road.

How serious is the shortage of the world’s supply of fresh groundwater?
The fresh groundwater situation is very serious. Many of the developed countries are over-pumping – using water unsustainably, usually for food production – which is causing problems in California, China, India, and elsewhere. Over-pumping causes cities to settle – cities like Beijing, Bangkok and others are subsiding; Beijing at 11 centimetres per year, in the Central Valley of California sometimes 10 to 20 centimetres per year. Mexico City is subsiding at basically 30 centimetres a year. Many cities are subsiding faster than sea levels are rising. So we have the conundrum of the developed world pumping too much water and under-developed countries that can’t pump the water they have because they don’t have the money or technology to access it.

How would you describe China’s fresh groundwater supply situation?
More than 50 per cent of major Chinese cities depend on groundwater. Much of the agriculture on the north China plain depends on wells. Of the major countries, China has the most serious groundwater problem. Over-pumping, contamination, land subsidence – China has all the problems.

What is China doing about it?
The Chinese government is well aware of their problems. They have done large groundwater surveys and have a number of world-class universities researching this. Groundwater problems seem like the most difficult to solve because they are underground and it takes a while to understand the problems. It takes quite a while to make the corrections, so China is now headed into an era where the Central Government is committed to solving the problems. China is the one country in the world with a commitment to make things better.

But is China committed to applying the right remedies?
They are committed to making progress and figuring out what the problem is in each area. The issue with groundwater is that the problems in particular areas are always specific to the complexities of that local situation. So it’s not possible to describe a “grand solution.” It’s not like a water problem where you build a large dam as a solution. Each groundwater solution must be reasonably sophisticated, and China’s challenge is to figure out how to apply sophisticated and modern technology in a problem-specific way. All countries are grappling with that.

“Governments need to think of incentives for the private sector to innovate, to apply new technologies early on.”

Is there room for an entrepreneurial approach to the problems, where companies would be incentivised by profits to help deliver solutions?
That’s a very interesting question. There certainly is room for private enterprise to develop better technologies for monitoring groundwater. In the West, consulting firms are involved in a big way, but I would say that the technologies and solutions in the West have stagnated. Largely because the effort has been so minimal, there is not a driver for the private sector to innovate. So it would be my hope that China, because its problem is so huge, and the commitment large, that there could be innovation. I think what China should not do is look to the outer world and mimic. Some are worth mimicking, a lot of it isn’t. I think governments need to think of incentives for the private sector to innovate, to apply new technologies early on.

How can the world address this problem?
When colleagues and I look at the sad state of groundwater around the world, we ask ourselves, what is the cause? People don’t willfully set forth to harm the water supply. We conclude that one of the major reasons is a lack of broad-based inter-disciplinary education.

Groundwater problems are multi-disciplinary. They are not a civil engineering, geological or chemical problem. Problems like this require well-educated teams that must communicate, which is when the going gets tough. Universities are not well-suited for what I would say would be a modern education in groundwater science and engineering. There are barriers between disciplines. So there is very little groundwater education in the world that is comprehensive and inter-disciplinary enough to produce the type of experts needed. And there is a deficiency of textbooks needed for the modern era. That is where colleagues and I are working, on a global online book that would help in that regard. It’s a matter of education.

Related Link
University of Guelph

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