Project: Understanding hydrological and land-use controls on microbial pollution & human health risks in the South West China karst region.

Communities of the Southwest China karst region are often entirely dependent on groundwater resources for a large proportion of the year. Farming, forestry, and over-population enhance contamination mechanisms of the surface-groundwater system. Microbial pollutants are sourced predominantly from manure and sewage and are responsible for a host of diseases, particularly mild and severe gastroenteritis. The inherent geological and hydrological properties of karst aquifers allow minimal attenuation of microbial contaminants, a phenomenon that is observed throughout karst aquifers of the world, resulting in re-emergence of pathogenic microbes at groundwater bores and springs.

This project aims to constrain the spatial and temporal variation in sources, transport mechanisms, and fate of microbial contaminants in the Southwest China karst region using faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) as a tracer of microbial contamination. The project sits within a large multidisciplinary NERC co-funded UK-China project. The results should help inform management of this fragile ecosystem for urgent human health and environmental needs.

Project goals

The field area for this project is Houzhai catchment within Guizhou Province. This catchment is representative of the land uses encountered in the Guizhou Province which is at the heart of the Southwest China karst terrain.

  1. Characterise sources of Faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) across the range of land uses encountered in karst terrain of the Houzhai catchment, their loading to land, seasonal variation, and relationship with the probability of microbial pathogen presence.
  2. Quantify the role of different hydrological mechanisms in the attenuation, transport, and fate of FIOs through the wet and dry seasons.
  3. Evaluate the role of the karst environment from field to landscape scale in determining downstream microbial organism concentrations and FIO fate.
  4. Develop simple and effective methods to inform local communities of the mechanisms and risks of microbial contamination of drinking water, enabling improved management.

Funding acknowledgements:

The PhD is funded by NERC via the IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership. My host institutions are The University of Stirling and University of Glasgow.

More about me

My particular area of interest is sustainable groundwater management as part of the broader catchment management framework. I hope to contribute to this field by developing skills as an interdisciplinary scientist able to draw on the fields of geology, hydrogeology, geophysics and remote sensing, biology, and geochemistry. After graduating from The Australian National University in 2013 I entered the graduate program at Geoscience Australia (see and worked on a variety of projects across the agency. This included The Broken Hill Managed Aquifer Recharge project in the groundwater group, investigating the effects of spatial data projections on the predictive accuracy of spatial interpolation in GIS in the National Earth Observation Group, and geophysical surveys for regolith cover depth estimation as part of the UNCOVER initiative in the geophysical acquisition and processing team.

Blog posts

A PhD amongst the paddy fields of south west China


Twitter @SBuckerfield_90