Research that holds water

Water is a vulnerable resource coming under increasing pressure in many parts of the world. The Research Council of Norway is providing funding to a number of research projects seeking to solve challenges related to the supply and quality of water.

This year’s annual national telethon took place on 19 October and was targeted towards the global water supply. The campaign, “Water changes everything”, was organised by Norwegian Church Aid in cooperation with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK).

The following is a selection of projects from the Research Council’s portfolio that are seeking to improve access to water resources in an international context.

Climate change affects water resources

The state of Maharashtra in India is populated by 122 million people, half of whom live in villages. Climate change has led to a longer rainy season than previously, with the monsoon system producing more frequent and heavier rainfall.  

“Monsoonal rainfall inundates the landscape and washes soil containing pollutants and bacteria into wells and sources of drinking water. In some open wells we have observed a tenfold increase in the amount of bacteria present,” says Research Scientist Isabel Seifert at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA).

NIVA is heading a research project in Maharashatra. Together with their Indian partners, the researchers are studying the impact of climate change on the availability, quality and quantity of water. Dr Seifert and her colleagues have taken water samples from a number of villages in the state. Most residents have access to water from a faucet system. Water is available through this system only for an hour or two each day, however, so each household needs to store water in buckets or other containers at home.

“When water is left exposed in an open container the risk of contamination increases sharply. Our data show that several households had more bacteria in water stored at home than in water obtained from the source,” Dr Seifert states.

Climate change also appears to be a factor behind a rise in average temperatures and in the number of days with extreme heat in Maharashatra.

“Both these issues lead to an increase in bacteria growth in drinking water sources,” explains Isabel Seifert.

Clean water critical for food safety

The National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO) is participating in a research project in connection with water and food safety in two Indian states. In Karnataka climate change has led to more and longer periods of drought. In the state of Bihar the impact of climate change is the opposite: an extended monsoon season and more flooding. 

“Water is essential to food production. Agricultural areas that depend on rain for irrigation are highly vulnerable to changes in climate. Changes have an impact on the entire food production value chain as well as on the infrastructure supporting food production,” states Arne Dulsrud, researcher at SIFO.

SIFO’s project will not be completed until 2016, but they already have an idea of where they are headed in terms of their recommendations. “We want to take a closer look at more climate-friendly agriculture, social support measures and market reforms in the highly regulated Indian food market,” Dr Dulsrud says.

He is also interested in the transfer value to other areas of the world. “We live in a global economy where our own actions and decisions affect other countries and continents. We can learn something about ourselves by studying others,” he adds.  

Human rights and gender dimensions of water governance

Vegetables grown on personal land parcels are a fundamental part of the nutritional base in Africa. Access to water is critical. Professor Anne Hellum at the Department of Public and International Law at the University of Oslo is heading a research project which focuses on human rights and gender dimensions of water governance. It is the girls and women who cultivate vegetables and it is they who fetch the water.

“Water used in small-scale food production is based on local usage rights, which are only marginally protected under national legislation on water. When conflicts regarding the use of water arise, these small-scale women users are often the ones who lose out. This poses a threat to food production in African villages,” says Dr Hellum.

Together with research colleagues from Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, Anne Hellum takes a critical view of the UN’s actions. “The UN resolution on the human right to water and sanitation from 2010 is limited to clean drinking water. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has done very little to safeguard the rights of women to make a living based on access to land or water,” Dr Hellum explains.

Their research findings also imply an indirect critique of Norway and other countries providing major contributions to development assistance. “Many development assistance projects are focused on infrastructure. We dig wells and lay pipes to carry water, but if we fall short in giving the poorest women the possibility to use the water then our efforts are in vain,”

A selection of projects funded by the Research Council of Norway:

  • Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE): The response of the hydrological system in India to climate change.
  • Uni Research: Climate Change and its Impacts on Selected Indian Hydrological Systems using Earth System and High-Resolution Modelling.
  • SINTEF Energy Research: Impact of Climate Change on Hydropower Development: Water Resources Management for Multiple Uses in the Godavari River Basin, India.
  • Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO): Climate Change and Water-Related Security Challenges on the Indian Subcontinent. 
  • Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center (NERSC): Decadal to multi-decadal variability in the Indian Monsoon Rainfall (IMR) and teleconnection with Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO).
  • Uni Research: Water-related effects of changes in glacier mass balance and river runoff in western Himalaya, India: past, present and future.
  • Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Noragric. Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU): Large land deals in Africa: Gendered processes of tenure security, resource capture and collective action.
  • Christian Michelsen Institute/Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO): Climate Change Discourse, Rights and the Poor: Scientific Knowledge, International Political Discourse, and Local Voices.
  • Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA): Acid deposition and acidification of waters in South Africa: status and prognoses given future climate change.
  • Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR): Climate change and urban water governance: pathways to social transformation.
  • GenØk – Centre for Biosafety: Development of efficient bioflocculants by exploring the microbial diversity of South African Eastern Cape Province for Novel Bioflocculants.
  • SINTEF: Sustainable water management for resilience to climate change impact on society in South Africa. 
  • Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO): The Role of Behavioural Interventions in Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation: The Case of Local Communities in South Africa.
  • Institute for Energy Technology (IFE): Performance of PV modules in arid areas – effects of soiling and module technology on yearly yield (South Africa).

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