11:17pm Saturday 19 October 2019

Scientists turn to statistics to solve Mexico's water problem

Willem Vervoort in MexicoWillem Vervoort in Mexico

The pressure on global water supplies, a product of population growth, urbanisation and increased demand, has led scientists to search for solutions among the huge amount of data being collected about rainfall and streamflow.

But as information tools become more sophisticated, the abundance of data can be overwhelming. In Mexico, Associate Professor Willem Vervoort from the University of Sydney is working with local scientists to provide training in how to interpret their water data.

“Water science is all about data,” says Vervoort, an Associate Professor in Hydrology and Catchment Management in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment. “Without data, you cannot understand the systems and you cannot make future forecasts.”

Like Australia, Mexico has complicated water issues. While one region of the country experiences severe drought, another region can have a surplus of water.

Professor Vervoort says: “For Mexico, the challenge is to analyse and synthesise this information so that they can predict water use and supply.”

Supported by AusAID and the University’s International Program Development Fund, Professor Vervoort is working with the Mexican Institute of Water Technology (IMTA), running virtual workshops and exchanges designed to teach Mexican researchers about forecasting in hydrology and statistics.

Professor Vervoort’s research team will soon be welcoming four people from Mexico who have themselves gathered data on the ground. He says: “They are not just being trained on cleaned Australian data, but they are learning to work with real Mexican data – warts and all.”

He says: “New technology can be very exciting because it helps us deal with difficulties from translating science to practical applications. If you are not sure that what you have observed is actually real, then making a prediction becomes really difficult. Better data gives more certainty in the forecasts. We are trying to know more from less, but with the availability of more data, we can now quantify dependent variables.”

With the aid of mobile phones, he also hopes that farmers in Mexico will be able to improve their communication with IMTA, as well as access rainfall predictions. Despite water data being collected all across Mexico, there are still some gaps in information and in actually analysing the data.

“For example,” says Professor Vervoort, “a rain gauge can only tell you if it has rained in one location, but if it is dry at a farm a few kilometres away, the rain gauge won’t pick that up. With the use of mobile phones, farmers will be able to get information from IMTA quickly but also input more qualitative information about their firsthand experience.”

Through his work, Professor Vervoort hopes to continue building the University’s relationship with Mexico as well as other Latin American countries. He says: “Compared to Australia, Mexico has more poverty and more people, which gives us more scope for capacity building with farmers and academics.”


Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3191

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