Flinders leads water security study on remote island

Professor Okke Batelaan and Dr Eddie Banks

For the 1600 Indigenous residents who live in Milingimbi, a remote island off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, drinking water is a scarce and precious resource that relies solely on aquifers deep below the earth’s surface.

As the population grows, studies have shown the island’s limited groundwater supply – which is already vulnerable to saltwater intrusion from the surrounding Arafura Sea – will not be capable of supplying the future water needs of the community.

To help secure resources and meet the growing demands of the community, Flinders University is leading a project which will measure how much water can be sustainably extracted from the aquifers storing the groundwater, and the extent of saltwater intrusion risk.

Researchers from Flinders, the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training and the University of Adelaide will provide technical groundwater and geophysical expertise to the Power and Water Corporation, the company responsible for the island’s water supply, to identify ways to secure a long-term sustainable water supply for the remote island.

Flinders University Strategic Professor in Hydrogeology Okke Batelaan – who is leading the project with Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Eddie Banks – said their team of researchers will support Power and Water’s current investigative drilling program by using geophysical measurements to determine the extent of the fresh groundwater “lens”, which is a layer of freshwater floating on top of a denser layer of saltwater.

He said the data collected, together with existing hydrogeological information, will be used to estimate the distribution of salinity within the aquifer as well as sustainable yields.

“We will be using geophysical instruments to map the position and location of the freshwater to saltwater interface, thereby providing greater insights into the groundwater conditions on the island,” Professor Batelaan, based in the School of the Environment, said.

“The basic goal of the project is to improve the conceptual model of the island’s hydrogeological system in the hope that this model will ultimately result in a more sustainable water supply for the water-constrained Aboriginal community of Milingimbi.”

As part of the project, Professor Batelaan said the team would train Flinders University students and Power and Water personnel to conduct field measurements, together with input and involvement from local community members.

“Increased community participation is very important in the long-term management and monitoring of the island’s limited groundwater resource, therefore Flinders will set up a workshop with the local community and Power and Water to address this issue,” Professor Batelaan said.

The study is one of only three projects in the world being funded through the 2014 Geoscientists Without Borders program, a humanitarian initiative run by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

Sharing in a total of $249,500, the three projects will use modern earth science theory and technology to ameliorate long-standing problems in some of the world’s poorest regions, including Guatemala and Northern Cameroon in Africa.

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