Technology talks to the trees about vital groundwater

Picture by Terry Clinton

Picture by Terry Clinton

In summary: 
  • World-first technology using trees to monitor groundwater levels has been named among the top 10 for the Google Impact Challenge in Australia
  • UTS's Professor Derek Eamus and his team are in line for $500,000 in support if selected by judges or popular vote among four non-profit projects "using technology to change the world" 

If you need to know how much groundwater is available, who'll know better than the trees?

That's the premise behind world-first technology developed by a UTS research team that's today been named a top 10 finalist in the Google Impact Challenge in Australia.

Leading plant physiologist and ecophysiologist Professor Derek Eamus has led the development of a simple and scalable technology that uses trees to detect the amount of groundwater left. That's an issue of vital concern to the around 2 billion people who depend on groundwater – the largest source of usable, fresh water in the world.

The Google Impact Challenge is offering $500,000 in grant funding and technical assistance to each of four non-profit projects "using technology to change the world". The top 10 will pitch their project to a panel of judges and the four winners will be chosen: three by the judging panel and one selected by popular vote.

Professor Derek Eamus, picture by Kevin Cheung Professor Derek Eamus, picture by Kevin Cheung

"We have invented an early warning system that, when attached to trees, can alert communities when excessive groundwater is being extracted," Professor Eamus said.

"The sensors deliver real-time data that can empower these communities, as well as local governments and groundwater pumping organisations, to preserve and better manage this precious resource."

Professor Eamus said the increasing use of groundwater is a major global concern, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions that account for 50 precent of the world's land area and support the same percentage of its population – Australia among them. If current rates of water extraction continue, the food and water security this population is at risk.

"By investing in these early warning systems and protecting these ecosystems, we can conservatively estimate a contribution to the Australian economy alone of $90 million through better management of groundwater usage and soil stability," Professor Eamus said.

"We hope to use our demonstrator sites in Australia to roll this out to other arid and semi-arid regions of the world such as India, China and the Middle East."

Update: Although Derek Eamus and his team weren't selected among the four winners on 14 October, Google announced that the six additional finalists would each receive $250,000 to get their projects up and running. All 10 finalists will also receive mentoring from Google to help realise their vision.