Rain rover: Researcher forecasts future of water in arid regions

Paul Gremillion

It has triggered wars throughout history and is systematically wasted and polluted around the globe, yet one Northern Arizona University professor will be spending the next year conducting research to see that it remains in ample supply in developing countries.

The hot button issue is, of course, water, and Paul Gremillion, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will be working on a contract assignment for the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency on a project to assess how groundwater aquifers in the Middle East are recharged by rainfall and runoff from storms.

“While the IAEA is better known for its role as nuclear weapons inspectors in countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, it also plays a key role in the application of advanced techniques in hydrology,” Gremillion explained.

Using scientific techniques that measure the quantity of certain naturally occurring elements in groundwater, Gremillion and a team of the agency’s “mission experts” will be able to make estimates of how long water has been underground. From those measurements they can then estimate how much water is recharged into aquifers annually.

“An important implication is to be able to forecast how much water is available for consumption in developing countries,” Gremillion said. “Many of these countries are located in areas vulnerable to climate change, so many previous estimates of water availability may no longer be accurate.”

The work is significant to countries like Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad, where the demand for water is increasing as human populations rise. These countries also share similar characteristics, including extremely arid climates, scarce surface water resources, low, irregular rainfall, persistent drought and fragile ecosystems. The agency calls groundwater “the biggest future source of water to meet growing demands and development goals in each country.”

Gremillion’s assignment places him with thousands of other employees in the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Not unlike professors who are based at universities but who conduct their research in remote locations, Gremillion also will travel frequently from the agency’s home base to conduct field assessments in developing and developed countries of interest. Gremillion applied for the position while seeking sabbatical opportunities. He left this week for his assignment, and he believes there are strong implications riding on the outcomes of the research.

“Climate change can have devastating consequences for people living in developing countries located in regions with climates trending toward aridity,” he said. “At least as important as the technological work will be work on the human side. I expect that, along with other UN agencies dedicated to water management, we will build partnerships with member countries at risk from critical shortages in water supply. The goal will be for partners to develop their own expertise in water management.”