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Threats to Colombia’s drinking water from climate change drive a FEAS-led international research project

Collaborations with local and international communities achieve innovative infrastructure development and advancements that address global issues
November 26, 2021
Laboratory of Wastewater Treatment at Toronto Metropolitan University

Laboratory of Wastewater Treatment Technologies at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Climate change poses significant challenges to the Colombian Caribbean Region (CCR) as it exacerbates flooding, droughts and coastal erosion, affecting food security, soil biodiversity and livelihoods. At the current rate of change, a loss of 17 to 20 percent of this land is predicted to occur due to sea-level rise within the next 50 years. In addition, rising sea levels allow saline water to seep through the sand and soil, contaminating aquifers – underground layers of water-bearing permeable rock – where residents typically get their drinking water.

Working to change this outcome, Mehrab Mehrvar, Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in Ryerson’s chemical engineering department, led a four-year project to strengthen Colombia’s coastal aquifer resilience and protect groundwater from salinity intrusion caused by climate change. “Most of the aquifers are now contaminated with saline water,” said Mehrvar. “It’s a danger.”

Mehrab Mehrvar in his wastewater treatment lab

Mehrab Mehrvar, Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in Ryerson’s chemical engineering department

The project team, including stakeholders from Toronto Metropolitan University, Western University and the University of Guelph, hosted 18 researchers from Colombian universities (the University of Cartagena, National University of Colombia, Colombian School of Engineering and the University of Antioquia). Together, they built and gathered data from novel computational tools and mathematical models. Their findings helped reduce uncertainties and improve numerical predictions in climate change, salinity intrusion, groundwater contamination, sea-level rise, water quality and many other areas. 

“The project team members collaborated on experimental and theoretical work to predict how long it takes for aquifers to get contaminated,” said Mehrvar.

The researchers were funded by the Queen Elizabeth Scholars (QES) - Advanced Scholars program (external link) , whose projects focus on institutional capacity-strengthening of the partner institutions from the Global South, contributing to improved global talent exchange between Canada and other nations. The diversity of the researchers’ academic and cultural backgrounds enabled Mehrvar and other FEAS faculty to look at various projects and strategies through different lenses. Working with the participating universities has also expanded research and mentorship opportunities for future initiatives.

Along with several publications in peer-reviewed journals and presentations in international conferences such as ACOFI 2020 and 2021 in Colombia, the project members are also creating a book on this “Strengthening Resilience to Climate Change in Colombia” project.