Water management called major challenge for world

The most productive agricultural regions around the world are working to improve yields in the face of changing climate and disappearing groundwater, said a world-leading American water scientist.

“We use more water (annually) than is available to us in many parts of the world. So, we’re making up the difference from groundwater,” said Jay Famiglietti, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory water scientist, who helped develop remote sensing hydrology.

“These are things that we all have to contend with and getting that message out is the challenging part, especially in regions that have had ample water and haven’t really had to worry about cutting back.”

Famiglietti has recently been recruited to serve as the University of Saskatchewan’s Canada 150 Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing, a seven-year, $7 million position.

He is based at the NASA lab at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and one of 24 appointments for the Canada Research Chair program, which has attracted top-tier researchers to Canada.

Famiglietti has also been appointed executive director of the U of S Global Institute for Water Security, part of the university’s contribution to the U of S-led Global Water Futures program, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

The fund has about 200 partners including 15 Canadian universities and is the world’s largest university-led fresh-water research program.

“I’ll be trying to put the “g” in global and also bringing some remote sensing background, which is what I do: satellite observations and analysis of terrestrial and global hydrology. So bringing some remote sensing expertise to the university and to Canada,” he said.

Big swings in the weather are becoming more common on the Canadian Prairies.

“The changing extremes are a big one, meaning the sort of seesaw, back and forth from more extreme precipitation punctuated by longer periods of drought. That’s what a lot of people have to deal with around the world and certainly industry for the Prairies as well,” he said.

One of the biggest issues facing the world is the unprecedented levels of stress on fresh-water resources, particularly the depletion of groundwater in major food-producing regions.

“Oftentimes we don’t even know how much groundwater is there. It’s like writing cheques on a chequing account without knowing the balance and not even checking,” he said.

“I think the dreams of finding vast new reservoirs of water or somehow tapping into some untapped supplier, that’s fiction,” he said.

Major policy changes must be implemented by working together across the disciplines, he said.

“Without technological advances and new approaches to water management, I see a future in which we will be very challenged to produce the food that we need for this growing world population.”

“I tend to think more on the demand side rather than the supply side. So cutting back, doing things more efficiently and I think that’s where some technology can really help.”

Using a wide range of remote sensing and computer modelling technologies including airborne sensors, satellite data assimilation and high-performance computing, Famiglietti will develop the simulations tools needed to create strategies to help the agriculture community make more informed decisions.

“How can we see where the water storage is changing, what are the rates, what are the impacts for regions?” he said.

“We’re not in a position of saying, do this, do that. We just unfortunately see a lot of bad news from our satellites and just want to share it so that people understand what we see and know that some of the things that we’re predicting for the future are happening now.…

“We need to figure out how to manage our way through to sustain water resources and obviously to keep food production continuing at a high level.”

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