UK peatlands are wild, often remote places. These aren’t the fields and farms that many town dwellers associate with the British countryside, rather areas of bog and mire that may be seldom visited except, perhaps, by the committed enthusiast. Not all look as attractive as they might — all too often peat bogs have suffered extensive damage, either through extraction of material for gardening products or attempts to drain the land for agricultural purposes. But these are important places, providing not only iconic and beautiful habitats for other species, but also vital resources for our own survival.
What have peat bogs got to offer? Our supplies of clean drinking water depend on rainfall in peatlands and they can also be important in mitigating flooding , slowing down the flow of water on its way to urban areas. Highly specialised species that are often rare, threatened or declining live, feed and breed in peatland habitats. From the bog hoverfly to the golden plover and greenshank, many species make their home here.
World Water Day is about taking action to tackle the global water crisis and ensuring adequate water for food production is another important aspect of water security. Researchers at Newcastle University are currently working on a project that will help to ensure that small holder farmers in South Asia have enough water for their crops into the future.
The work of Professor Hayley Fowler and Dr Nathan Forsythe, builds upon multiple collaborative initiatives with research institutes in South Asia, and focuses on finding grassroots-scale solutions to mitigate drought impacts on local communities and build resilience to climate change impacts. The project looks at ways to mainstream climate adaptation in three countries across South Asia with case study villages in contexts such as the rural areas of Nainital district in Uttarakhand state, India. Similar focus areas will be selected in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The project focuses on translation of sophisticated climate model outputs into pragmatically useful “climate services” that help communities prepare for climate change, and understand its effects on crop yields at the local level. Cropping simulations generated from large-scale regional climate models will be refined based on information generated by the smallholder farmers themselves.
Bacteria that like to munch ammonia in wastewater. Removing ammonia is a major challenge for the wastewater industry. Credit: Russell Davenport/BE:WISE
If the world is to truly reach Target 3 of Goal 6 for Clean Water and Sanitation by 2030, improving water quality globally, it requires novel innovative ways for treating wastewater that may not be readily available or accessible in the developing or developed world. Many of these solutions for treating wastewater will likely come from cities as well as rural areas depending on the context.
Cities provide test beds for treating wastewater, demonstrating new methods outside of the lab using actual municipal sources of wastewater. Wastewater creates new opportunities for sustainable development. It is a resource for generating energy through anaerobic digestion or even directly from microbes in wastewater.
Newcastle University’s Biological Engineering: Wastewater Innovation at Scale (BE:WISE) research facility aims to help speed up credible wastewater treatment innovation by allowing scientifically rigorous experimentation with microbes at realistic scales. Microbes are key to creating sustainable pathways for clean water and sanitation.
Floods are often presented as human interest stories of stranded grannies and rescued pets, but their impact on hidden infrastructure is just as severe. In late 2015 for instance, a number of power systems and phone exchanges were inundated in Leeds and York which cut off thousands of homes, businesses (who were unable to process card payments), bank machines and even police and hospital services on Tyneside, 100 miles away.
But it’s not just floods and it’s not just phone lines. In fact, a major new peer-reviewed report highlights how, across the UK, the country’s infrastructure – services such as energy, transport and sanitation that are essential for modern society – is already experiencing significant impacts from severe weather related to climate change.
Unchecked, the projected increases in flooding will lead to more disruption of infrastructure. Furthermore, gradual changes in our climate, such as a rise in average temperatures, will reduce capacity and increase running costs.
There is no panacea for flood events, but there is a portfolio of measures we could either do better or should consider in mitigating or adapting to floods in the UK and countries throughout the world. The recent floods caused by Storm Desmond the first week of December 2015 were devastating on both sides of the Pennines. A record breaking 341mm of rain fell in 24 hours. Not only was the 24 hour rain fall record broken, but so was the 48 hour record at 405mm. The damages were significant with tens of thousands of people evacuating their homes, widespread power loss after two substations were flooded, and transport links lost across the region.
While the magnitude of the storm rainfall was extreme, what made the flood especially severe is that the previous two months were very wet. Extreme weather events like Storm Desmond tend not to occur in isolation and nor are they evenly spaced out. In Cumbria there had already been a cluster of previous storms and this was the big one.
To manage such large floods requires an understanding of the occurrence of sequences of intense rainfall and how they may be changing, but also of course learning to deal with the flood waters in ways that are affordable and sustainable.