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‘Water for Life’ researchers unite to bring water security to rural Colombian communities.

To conserve Colombia’s water aquifers for future generations, Toronto Metropolitan University, the University of Cartagena, and the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships Program (QES) are embracing international collaboration.
By: Spencer Henderson
December 20, 2023

Dr. Mehrab Mehrvar working in the lab alongside Toronto Metropolitan University and University of Cartagena students and scholars.

“A true engineer has a responsibility to help improve the world,” says Dr. Mehrab Mehrvar, a chemical engineering professor at Toronto Metropolitan University. For two decades and counting, Mehrvar has acted upon this belief, collaborating with like-minded researchers and students to safeguard an enigmatic and vital source of freshwater: aquifers. 

Simply put, aquifers are underground water transit systems. Groundwater travels through porous rock beds and eventually settles in a spring or well. Tragically, climate change has begun to dry up and contaminate freshwater-holding aquifers. Similar to Canada and other countries, Colombia is home to widespread rural communities that have long depended on these natural water systems for everyday life. Today, over 3.2 million Colombians have no access to safe drinking water and proper sewage treatment – with 82% living in rural areas1. Inspired to formalize their ongoing efforts to advance groundwater sustainability and freshwater quality for Colombians, Dr. Mehrvar, along with Dr. Lynda McCarthy and Dr. Andrew Laursen from TMU’s Faculty of Science, Western University, the University of Guelph, and the University of Cartagena, Colombia, established the “Strengthening Coastal Aquifer Resilience and Groundwater Use Against Climate Change Effects in the Caribbean” project. Further bolstering the project and its international exchange of researchers, the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships (QES) Program committed to an initial grant for four years of funding and support. 

When the project began in 2017, tracking the transport of groundwater within aquifers was notoriously difficult. To shed light on these underground systems, the project team used numerical modeling to pioneer methodologies that mathematically characterize groundwater in aquifers. The researchers involved authored a comprehensive range of publications, including peer-reviewed articles, conference proceedings, and books, to disseminate their findings. This collective work not only provided new insight into the status of Colombia’s aquifers but broadened the scientific community’s understanding of coastal aquifer behaviour.

The team next sought to address one of the leading issues in aquifers: salinity intrusion. Rising sea levels are overwhelming aquifers with saline water (or salt water), tainting the freshwater reserves. While the issue was well-documented, solutions were scarce. By analyzing the latest research on this subject, the team was able to outline new innovative techniques that could be used to characterize and prevent the contamination of groundwater. Throughout these advancements, the team prioritized disseminating their knowledge to Colombian communities, policymakers, and students – further championing local efforts to conserve coastal aquifers. 

Most recently, Mehrvar was awarded another three years of funding from the 2024 QES Program for a project titled “Water for Life: Building Resilience in Dispersed and Reserved Communities in Northern Colombia.” This initiative aims to leverage the data and methodologies generated by the previous project to develop novel solar disinfection systems; these systems will focus on sanitation and conservation training, decentralized wastewater treatment technologies, and access to safe drinking water. As many rural Colombians are dispersed, lacking access to electricity and the infrastructure that standard water treatment technology requires, new ideas and perspectives are needed to find solutions. 

In the spirit of collaboration, Mehrvar, the principal investigator for ‘Water for Life,’ wants to tap into the next generation of researchers. One of his former MASc and Ph.D. students, Dr. Ciro Bustillo LeCompte, currently an adjunct professor at TMU’s School of Occupational and Public Health, will be joining the team, which includes TMU colleagues Mehrvrar, McCarthy, Laursen, and University of Cartagena scholars, led by Dr. Edgar Quiñones. The QES funding will also help finance the graduate education of Ph.D. researchers from Northern Colombia so that they can participate in solving challenges they understand intimately. In addition, TMU Global is supporting an international mobility opportunity for TMU chemical engineering undergraduates who will be able to learn on-site in Colombia as part of their cooperative placements. 

Taking a collaborative approach has always been imperative for the ‘Water for Life’ team. Mehrvar says, “International collaboration plays a pivotal role in addressing complex global challenges, especially when it is related to water access and sustainability. The constant feedback and sharing of ideas between scholars and supervisors with different perspectives and skill sets has led to a deeper understanding of the issues and the development of innovative solutions to the local issues.” While the team remains committed to supporting rural Colombia regions, they hope their advancements and training will have a ripple effect. Bright with optimism, Mehrvar says, “We hope to inspire new advocates for remote communities all around the world.” 

1Source: National Action Plan, 2023

Interested in getting involved with the ‘Water for Life’ project?

‘Water for Life’ is recruiting Colombian PhD students, as well as TMU chemical engineering undergraduates to take part in an exchange. Email Dr. Mehrab Mehrvar at to learn more.

About Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) Global 

TMU Global is driven by a mission to enable students to explore the diversity of the world’s cultures, knowledge systems, worldviews, perspectives, and nations. From learning abroad to virtual global learning, TMU Global coordinates a range of activities to prepare students to face the world’s interconnected, global challenges while respecting and engaging with diverse, multifaceted perspectives and approaches.

If you are a current TMU student interested in learning more about global learning opportunities or other international university-sanctioned activities, visit TMU Global’s website. You can also email for more information about learning opportunities, funding, and travel safety.

About the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships Program

The QES program is led by the Rideau Hall Foundation (external link)  in collaboration with Universities Canada (external link)  and with founding support from Community Foundations of Canada.

Established in 2012, this scholarship has been awarded to more than 2,500 scholars from Canada and across the globe. Queen Elizabeth Scholars worldwide preserve and promote the enduring importance of cultural exchange, leadership, and civic engagement. This new round of funding is enabling 47 Canadian universities to participate in the program through 112 impactful projects in 80 countries worldwide. 

To learn more about the program, visit (external link)