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“There’s nothing more satisfying than drilling a borehole and seeing water being pumped out for supply!”

Groundwater Relief connects hydrogeology experts with humanitarian and development organisations to supply water to vulnerable communities worldwide.

Turning a tap and watching fresh water pour out isn’t as common as you might think. Around 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries according to UN-Water, and 733 million live in places considered “critically water-stressed.”

“I started off work in the humanitarian sector as a wash engineer and it was fairly clear, fairly quickly that there was a real lack of expertise in understanding what was going on underground,” says Geraint Burrows, CEO of Groundwater Relief.

The non-profit was launched to fill the knowledge gap around groundwater and to help uncover and manage this hidden resource for those in need.

“Water supplies are, in general, now under pressure or being over utilised. Surface water is an easy water source for people to see, develop, and manage,” explains Geraint.

“Groundwater is invisible. It’s therefore much more difficult to regulate and manage.”

Groundwater Relief has over 400 members with a variety of expertise. They provide hydrogeological support and training to humanitarian and development organisations worldwide.

Geraint in the field

Groundwater Relief in the field. (Credit: Groundwater Relief)

Water as a shared human need

While they focus on hydrogeology, Geraint’s team is driven by a mission beyond the science.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to serve families and individuals who lack access to a safe water supply to support them,” he says.

They assist organisations who are trying to supply water to vulnerable people, in-country institutions responsible for managing water supplies, and local companies.

“We approach them with the idea of capacity building by engaging our worldwide experts to work with those local teams to improve knowledge and understanding, improve the way the projects and money is spent,” says Geraint.

“We can advise both in terms of the broader development, but also in setting up monitoring programs and trying to manage water resources.”

Success is discovering that their groundwater models match reality. The ultimate reward is knowing that more people have access to fresh water.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than drilling a borehole and seeing water being pumped out for supply,” he says.

Capacity building hydrogeology skills in refugee camps

Capacity building or training skills on site is a key part of how Groundwater Relief makes an impact. (Credit: Groundwater Relief)

Groundwater’s vital role in refugee camps

Today, there are over 26.6 million refugees in the world – the most ever recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugee camps are growing as environmental, political, and economic issues force mass groups of people to relocate.

“Every situation is quite different. Ultimately, you are working with people who’ve often lost almost everything. They’re not in refugee camps as a matter of choice, but as a matter of necessity,” says Geraint.

Often, escape is just the start of the challenges that refugees face. Once they reach the safety of a camp, water is a vital concern that only grows the longer a camp lasts.

If water sources become strained, tensions can arise between nearby communities and the camps.

“If your resources start to be depleted or  your boreholes stops pumping water: that can cause problems,” explains Geraint.

“The minimum average lifespan of a refugee camp is 20 years, at least. These are long-term dwellings.”

Drilling boreholes and discovering new water supplies can help ease tensions as well as increasing water access.

drilling boreholes at sunset

Drilling for water at sunset. (Credit: Groundwater Relief)

Increasing water supply in Sudan

Over 120,000 refugees rely on water under the Bentiu Camp in South Sudan. For this project, the team helped develop a groundwater model to target new drilling locations for water.

“We were very fortunate to have Thomas Krom [segment director, environment at Seequent] as one of our members. He was very kind to develop the first Leapfrog models for us when we were working in South Sudan,” Geraint says.

“For the model, we had about 10 to 12 borehole records for the camp. So, we were able to use those borehole records to create a geological profile using Leapfrog.”

After building the 3D groundwater model, they were relieved to discover additional water resources beneath their feet.

“We saw that there were two systems: a deeper system and a shallow system. And then that was validated through pumping test data and water quality testing data. It helped to determine specifications going forward for water supply for the camp.”

Leapfrog model - Bentiu refugee camp

Leapfrog model of the Bentiu aquifers. (Credit: Groundwater Relief)

Water for the world’s largest refugee camp

Geraint’s team recently worked with the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh to create the first groundwater model of the aquifers below Cox’s Bazar – host to the largest refugee settlement on Earth.

Nearly 1 million refugees live in camps in the area. Besides drinking, water for washing is pivotal in preventing the spread of disease in these densely populated communities. Water demands are high.

“This model was able to, in effect, tell the international community about the water supply underneath the Rohingya refugee camp. There was a large basin of water there, which is currently being able to maintain the supplies of water for those refugees,” says Geraint.

“We’ve been able to predict the impacts the withdrawal will have on the host community and being able to suggest mitigation measures.”

life in a refugee camp

Groundwater Relief has over 400 members who lend their skills to help find water for vulnerable people worldwide. (Credit: Groundwater Relief)

Unearthing groundwater data for the future

In the southwest of Yemen, Groundwater Relief has been able to unlock a lost database of information that was pulled together before the civil war began in 2014.

“We’re hoping that database can be resuscitated and start to be utilised again for a better understanding about groundwater resources.”

As well as working with existing data, Geraint sees that often areas with a lack of water resources also have a lack of water data.

“Our next push as an organization is to get into areas where there are vulnerable groundwater resources, where there is a distinct lack of data.”

“And to start working with authorities and organizations on the ground to develop data sets so that these resources can be better managed going into the future.”

By providing expertise and education, Groundwater Relief can help local communities and organisations discover and manage groundwater – helping reduce the number of people without adequate access to water.

“Scientists, universities, hydrogeologists, companies, etcetera can then be engaged in advising the regulators and decision makers how to manage those resources better.”

To learn more about their work, visit the Groundwater Relief website.