We Need to Keep It Clean… Or Else

Groundwater contamination is a hazard across Canada and the world. Can we find a balance between humans and the natural ecosystem?

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As humans, everything we do involves water. We use it to produce our food, extract minerals, generate energy and manufacture goods. In fact, there’s no product on the market that does not have a water footprint.

In Canada, there is a perception that there is so much fresh water that we do not need to worry about the supply. Professor Philippe Van Cappellen, ecohydrology researcher at the University of Waterloo, worries about it. He’ll tell you that it is becoming clearer and clearer that degradation of water quality is probably the most pervasive, global threat to human health and human prosperity.

It is currently estimated that 90% of cities in China are dealing with groundwater contamination issues. In a country where 70% of the drinking water is supplied by groundwater, this is a very important problem. It is also a problem closer to home – areas in Canada, like Southern Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Southern Alberta, are facing ground water contamination issues.

Traditionally ecohydrology was the study of the interactions between the water cycle and natural ecosystems. However, as we are dealing more and more with human dominated ecosystems like those created in agricultural and urban areas, ecohydrology has shifted to looking at the world as a collection of socio-ecological systems where humans are an integral part of the ecosystem.

Van Cappellen’s group is trying to determine how to balance the need for clean water for humans with the need for enough water of good quality for natural ecosystems. Gaining an understanding at a fundamental level, at the lab-bench level or in the field, on how natural processes eliminate contaminants from the environment, can lead to the development of new green technologies or engineered environments for water treatment and water conservation.

The impact of this type of research is far reaching. Essentially, in many areas of the world, development is limited by the availability of clean drinking water. If we can increase the availability of clean water, we can automatically generate economic prosperity. In terms of generating jobs and having a direct economic impact, there is a lot of potential in water technology. Canada with all its water and its large water-related research community, has the possibility to be a frontrunner in that area.

Learn more at: https://uwaterloo.ca/ecohydrology/

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Philippe Van Cappellen joined the University of Waterloo as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ecohydrology on June 1, 2011. He was previously the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Global Environmental Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, USA, and a Professor of Geochemistry at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Van Cappellen’s research focuses on the biogeochemistry of soils, sediments and aquatic ecosystems, the cycles of water, carbon, nutrients and metals, global change, geobiology, chemical hydrology, and environmental modeling. He was also awarded the 2015 Science Innovation Award by the European Association of Geochemistry (EAG) and elected a Geochemical Fellow by the EAG and Geochemical Society for excellence in geochemistry.

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