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INTERVIEW TO JAVIER VALDÉS (University of Alicante)

Today we meet Javier Valdés, professor of Civil Engineering and director of the Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering research group at the University of Alicante.

We talk about the importance of groundwater and its sustainable management. Javier has extensive experience in international competitive projects funded by the European Union, such as the RESERVOIR project. All of them, aimed at guaranteeing the sustainable use of water in agriculture and the effect of overexploitation of aquifers.

1. On November 19, World Sanitation Day is celebrated and the importance of access to water sanitation is valued, a human right recognized by the United Nations along with the right of access to water. What do you think are the main challenges in these matters today?

Proper management of wastewater is of vital importance for the development of our society due to a multitude of factors:

The first of these, and from my point of view, the most important is the safety factor that good wastewater management implies in terms of reducing contagious diseases. Thus, we can say that diseases such as cholera have practically disappeared from developed countries from the moment they took effective management measures for the sanitation network.

On the other hand, we must not only protect human beings directly, but also the environment. And, in this sense, the elimination of uncontrolled discharges into the environment is key to proper wastewater management. After all, we are part of the environment and caring for and protecting it is an indirect way of caring for and protecting ourselves.

Finally, and this is a paradigm shift that has been taking place for several years now, we must consider ‘waste’ water not as waste but as the raw material for an additional water resource, which must be considered in basin plans as one more resource. This paradigm shift is undoubtedly being accelerated with the new climatic circumstances that we are facing, and that will probably continue to worsen in the near future.

Therefore, the main challenges in the framework of this matter involve increasing the percentages of reuse of wastewater, which will allow us to advance in the security of access to water for all, and the creation of more resilient societies against climate change. This challenge must be accompanied by the improvement of wastewater treatment through the elimination of certain polluting compounds, included under the label of emerging compounds, and which until relatively recently we did not even consider.

2. What do you think should be the priorities regarding the management of the water cycle?

The management of the water cycle must be carried out from a global or holistic point of view, which covers both needs and availability of the resource. The water resource is limited, in general, and very limited in certain geographical areas specially. This implies, on the one hand, that water managers must try to maximize available resources through the use of alternative sources, such as wastewater, desalination and any other that allows us to increase this limited resource.

But, on the other hand, the issue of demand management must not be forgotten. Society shall be aware that we are dealing with a vital, but yet limited, resource. The use must be responsible and coherent with the amount of available resources and look forward to reaching a balance between resources and needs.

3. What projects are being carried out in these areas at the University of Alicante?

At the University of Alicante, there are multiple research groups that try to make progress in the search for balance in the use of water and protection of the environment that has been commented on previously. At the Water Institute itself, there is currently a project underway whose objective is to design wastewater treatment strategies precisely having as target compounds some of these emerging compounds mentioned above.

On the other hand, in the Department of Civil Engineering, we are now finalizing a project aimed at trying to eliminate the heavy metals that live in urban runoff waters and whose origin we can locate in vehicles with combustion engines. And of course, we must not forget the European project RESERVOIR.

4. The RESERVOIR project, from the PRIMA 2019 call of the European Commission, seeks to better understand the state of groundwater and address the overexploitation of aquifers, one of the main problems. Because it is important?

Groundwater is vital to the survival of our society. Aquifers are essential freshwater resources and their proper management is essential.

One of the multiple problems that can occur in situations in which incorrect and unsustainable management of underground water resources is carried out is the development of the phenomenon of subsidence. In this case, we are talking about the ground surface suffering a settlement caused by the depression of the water table below levels never produced before, as a consequence of a massive extraction of water.

This phenomenon has multiple drawbacks: On the one hand, the phenomenon is partially irreversible, in that it produces soil compaction that causes a decrease in the storage capacity of the aquifer itself, which then does not recover in the event that the levels of water recovered. It would be something like that, if we empty the piggy bank a lot, it will shrink and its size will never be what it was at the beginning. On the other hand, and depending on the magnitude and spatial distribution of the phenomenon, structural damage can be expected to occur in homes, roads or railway lines. And, although due to the speed at which the event occurs, it does not generally put human lives at risk, its material cost can be very considerable.

Lastly, we have detected in recent investigations that the appearance of this phenomenon can give rise to changes in flood risk patterns which, of course, must be considered in the authorities’ risk management plans.

The RESERVOIR project aims to use remote information, obtained by satellites, to identify and quantify this phenomenon, and ultimately, establish strategies for sustainable management of the resource from the point of view of this phenomenon.

5. From the University, how are you working to address the challenges related to groundwater? Apart from the RESERVOIR project, what project or projects would you highlight?

Within the framework of efficient water management, I would also like to highlight the role of the European project FOWARIM, which has recently ended and whose objective was to improve water management in agriculture.

This project was especially interesting because it was developed with special attention to the island of Malta, which is a case of special interest to us, both because of its insular nature (which makes it especially sensitive to the lack of resources and because of its climatic conditions), and its agriculture, since they are very similar to those that can be found in the regions with the greatest water stress in our country.

6. In the current climate emergency context, what role should the different social actors, administrations, etc. adopt to jointly advance the climate agenda? What needs and/or opportunities do you detect from the University?

Climate change is an issue that, although it is already an old acquaintance in the academic world, seems to be becoming a worrying issue for our rulers once its effects begin to be evident.

It is essential, therefore, that our governments are convinced of the urgency to act (I would say that they are not really convinced at the moment), and that they take measures aimed at reducing or mitigating this change.

We cannot continue to burn fossil fuels as if the problem were not ours. These measures will undoubtedly have a cost, which all of us as a society must assume. And, for this, it is also fundamental to design information strategies aimed at raising awareness among citizens about the importance of this issue and its potential consequences. Of course, I do not consider that the solutions are easy to put into practice, since it is a global issue and, therefore, all countries, or at least the most polluting ones, should establish common strategies.

Our role, as a University, must be multiple. We must provide alternatives to the energy problems derived from the adoption of measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels. We must quantify or predict the potential consequences that will occur in a hypothetical new climate scenario, in order to adapt to these new situations with enough time. We must seek alternatives not only in terms of available energy sources, but also those resources that will be affected to a greater extent, such as water resources. In short, the University must be the tool that society needs to answer the questions that currently exist on the table.

7. How is the transfer of knowledge carried out to the different actors from the University? And, once the knowledge is transferred, how does it transcend to projects that seek to offer solutions to these problems?

The transfer is one of the aspects of the chain of transmission of knowledge in which more efforts must be made for its development and strengthening. That is why communication channels must be established, so that these solutions and all this baggage reach the productive sector of a country and that the wheel of knowledge and progress does not stop. However, there is not always such fluid communication between the academic world and the business world and, sometimes, these good ideas end up not being developed to the level they deserve.