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Steve Chaplin
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011

Geology journal addresses global water sustainability

IU geochemist serves as co-guest editor of special issue

July 18, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Water, water, everywhere, but not enough to drink -- at least not where it's needed. That's the dilemma that Indiana University geochemist Chen Zhu and colleagues explore in the current issue of Elements, a peer-reviewed publication sponsored by 16 geological societies.

Zhu serves as guest editor of the special issue on global water sustainability, along with Eric H. Oelkers of the University of Toulouse in France and Janet Hering of EAWAG, a Swiss research institute. In the lead article, "Water: Is There a Global Crisis?" they examine what seems to be a paradox:

Chen Zhu

Chen Zhu

Chen Zhu

Print-Quality Photo

The Earth's renewable water resources are 10 times as much as required by the demands of the current population. Yet an estimated 1 billion people lack safe drinking water, and poor water quality and management are responsible for more than 1.5 million deaths per year. While there is excess water in some parts of the globe, other areas face severe shortages or water that is ruined by pollution.

"Is there really a water crisis? In a sense yes; our current water policy is unstable and unsustainable," the editors write. "Yet, in contrast to non-renewable resources such as petroleum, we will not run out of water. The solution to this global water crisis is improved management of this valuable resource."

The article examines the global availability of ground water and surface water and addresses impacts on water quality from pollution, agriculture, climate change and other factors. It explores the potential and challenges of various water management approaches, including desalination of sea water and fresh-water transport and storage.

"The role of Earth scientists in addressing the global water crisis is crucial," they write. "Indeed, resource monitoring, development of novel waste-water treatment technologies, and determination of the quantities of water that can be withdrawn without causing adverse effects on the environment will be essential for the efficient management of global water resources in the future."

Zhu also contributes to the Elements issue an article on "Hydrogeochemical Processes and Controls on Water Quality and Water Management," co-authored with Franklin W. Schwartz of the Ohio State University. They write that advances in the ability to identify processes that control water chemistry will help identify sources of contamination and illuminate possible solutions to water-quality problems.

"Particularly impressive," they say, "are the applications of chemical and isotopic tracers, which can track water movement and quantify water fluxes on the surface and in the subsurface."

Other articles address water and sanitation in developing countries, the decline in groundwater resources, water quality issues in the production of shale gas, and the potential for improved water management through conservation, efficiency and reuse.

Zhu, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, conducts research on aqueous geochemistry, including pollution of groundwater with arsenic, antimony and other substances and issues related to geological sequestration of carbon dioxide. He teaches courses on environmental geology, geochemical modeling and hydrogeology.

Zhu will coordinate a session on global water sustainability next month at the Goldschmidt 2011 earth sciences conference in Prague, Czech Republic. In October, he will co-chair and take part in a keynote symposium on global water sustainability at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.

The Elements special issue on global water sustainability is available online at