Research of Finnish peatlands at University of Oulu is helping to solve water issues around the world

The power of education and international competence building in solving global water issues is evident in this story about Omar Ashraf Nimr, a PhD student from University of Oulu, who is passionate about peatland research and gaining knowledge from it to solve water scarcity issues affecting millions of people.
Omar Ashraf Nimr in Finnish winter forest

Omar Ashraf Nimr started his international research career at by completing a Masters degree in Applied Ecohydrology, traveling through European universities in Portugal, Poland, Germany and Belgium. After graduation, he found his way to the research unit of Water, Energy and the Environmental Engineering (WE3) at University of Oulu. How did this happen?

While he was searching through literature for his Master’s thesis about peatlands, Omar stumbled in many strong articles that have been published by University of Oulu. ”From this point actually I got to know what is Oulu. I found that they have really well established and long record of articles related to Peatland hydrogeology, especially in modeling parameterization.” Omar tells.

Water as the basis of a civilization

Before joining the international Master’s program Omar studied water engineering in Egypt in his bachelor's degree. ”That was mainly orienting my mind into the hydrophysics of water. But it never combines the environment and ecosystem as an item into the context of water and that exactly what has been emphasized by the by the Master of Applied ecohydrology, it brings the the environment strongly into the context of water because they are two main inseparable players of this system!”

Egypt is a country where the water and water management rules the destiny of a whole nation. The history of the river Nile with its irrigation systems and ability to sustaining civilizations along its banks, is not only well-known to Egyptians but also across the globe. The water, and the looming lack of it is something that is now discussed regularly in Egyptian homes. “The families, they're talking about the Nile and how it’s going to affect our life. What is happening nowadays that sadly, it's estimated by 2025 that the Egypt will fall below the threshold of an absolute water scarcity of almost 500 cubic meters per person”. There is another water source in addition to the Nile, a fossil aquifer system that stores very old reserve of water in a sandstone formation, but using that reserve sustainably is complex. Omar would like to bring the concept of Freshwater Competence Centre to his home country – combining universities, research institutes and private companies to look at the water issues.

The answer is in the peatland?

Omar’s eyes light up when he engagingly describes his main research topic at the University of Oulu: the peatland. “Peatland is one of the highlight examples of ecohydrology because it really combines all the natural processes, or most of the natural processes that could happen in a catchment, biogeochemical and hydrophysical and everything. And all these autogenic feedbacks that could affect the water movement and emissions and carbon budget. So that's one main example about how viewing catchments from an ecohydrological perspectivebecame a must! My desire to to work with water and especially freshwater is because in my home country, we all believe that there's no life without it because everything starts with it, basically it’s the cradle of life and civilization.”

And how does Finnish peatland research relate to the great issues of management of the Nile and water scarcity in Egypt? “You know, this question just came from my father a couple of days ago!”, Omar says laughing. “What I'm doing in my PhD and what I did in my master’s thesis is to equip myself with the more sophisticated dynamics that I could encounter while I'm dealing with water systems of Egypt. Dealing with sandstone or karst formation systems doesn't demand expertise in high complexity systems. Rather, it necessitates a grasp of fundamental geologic interactions and subsurface hydrology. On the other hand, dealing with boreal peatland is of an overall higher degree of complexity, so it will equip me to deal with whatever other systems! It gathers surface hydrology, hydrogeology also the ecology and the climate change studies all together. I'm not just dealing with peatland as like a soil system, but as land surface model that interacts with the climate and and has kind of exchange with the atmosphere.”

Research benefits from strong collaboration

Complexity of Omar’s research topic requires an interdisciplinary work environment. ” Playing around Peatland with only abstract knowledge of hydrophysics would never do the job because of those very dynamic, autogenic, ecohydrological activities that happen in Peatland. In order to really tackle and work with peatland, you need a work atmosphere that has individuals with diverse perspectives, varied backgrounds, a rich array of community-based knowledge, and sound mindsets around you. And that exactly what University of Oulu and the Department of Water Energy and the Environmental Engineering provides it provides: this atmosphere of interdisciplinarity and backgrounds diversity. We are all integrating with each other and having fun with playing around the science that everyone is interested in.”

Omar Ashraf Nimr is completing his PhD as part of Freshwater Competence Centre and DIWA flagship research efforts at University of Oulu, benefiting from the Hydro-RI & Cryo-RI research Infrastructures and equipment. He is aiming to continue on the international career path, his dream is to finally work in an impactful global scale agency, perhaps related to water sector in the United Nation or UNESCO. We at Freshwater Competence Centre wish him all the success!

Omar’s research primarily focuses on the Integrated surface-subsurface hydrologic modeling of peatlands, with a specific emphasis on peatland runoff generation and responses to restoration activities. Essentially, his work involves validating and quantifying the hypothesis that the drainage or restoration of peatlands has a significant impact on water pathways, as well as lateral carbon transport across the catchment. Ultimately, these changes are expected to influence the rate of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from both peatlands and surface water bodies. The study is conducted at Pallas supersite and Matorova catchments, both situated in Lapland, northern Finland.

Omar’s work is funded by LIFE PeatCarbon project.

This article is a joint publication of the Freshwater Competence Centre and WE3 research unit.

Last updated: 2.4.2024