Imperial College London

Will Veness

Faculty of EngineeringDepartment of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Research Postgraduate







Skempton BuildingSouth Kensington Campus





2022 Publication: Localizing Hydrological Drought Early Warning Using In Situ Groundwater Sensors

PhD research candidate under supervisors Prof Wouter Buytaert and Prof Adrian Butler, in collaboration with NGO Concern Worldwide.

Title of Research: "Groundwater Sensors for Drought Early Warning," with a focus on drought forecasting in Somaliland using low-cost groundwater sensors. The project investigates the feasibility and utility of low-cost groundwater monitoring systems in better informing drought early warnings for preventative actions by governments, NGOs and communities.

Somalia, including the self-declared independent Republic of Somaliland, is one of the poorest countries in the world, devastated by conflict and suffering from the most severe droughts in living memory. Estimated fatalities from the 2011 drought total 250,000, and a further drought in 2016/17 required humanitarian aid for 6 million people. In dry conditions with unreliable surface water, rural communities in Somalia and Somaliland face water insecurity and depend on limited shallow wells for water supply. However, with no hydrological data collection on the ground consistently collected, there is little information for communities, governments or humanitarian agencies to anticipate accurately where and when these wells will run dry. This lack of drought exposure information leads to inaccurate and late emergency aid, by which time the impacts of malnutrition, health, community displacement and conflict have developed. 

Our research group at Imperial College London have developed wireless groundwater sensors, capable of SMS transmission, that can give humanitarian agencies real-time information of water levels and their rate of depletion. At a cost of less than £200, these sensors can be widely deployed to create a technically reliable monitoring network that issues early warnings of where and when water will run dry. Through a partnership with NGO Concern Worldwide in 2017, sensors have been tested in Gabiley, Somaliland. Will's project now aims to scale-up monitoring to a regional scale. His work will explore what insights can be modelled from the collected data, as well as how best to tailor and deliver any outputs inline with stakeholder-needs.

These outputs will be viewable alongside existing, satellite-based drought models for the region, with the objective of improving the spatial and temporal accuracy of drought early warnings with this additional information. By improving the detail and evidence-base behind drought early warning triggers, it is proposed that forecast-based finance (FbF) can be released earlier, and any early interventions taken can prioritise the most drought-exposed communities.

This research also links in closely with the emerging sector of parametric drought insurance. In a similar way to FbF, sensor-borne groundwater information is being evaluated in this research for its potential as a parameter in these policies through semi-structured stakeholder interviews. It is proposed that direct, in-situ measurements of groundwater availability are feasible and can address the challenge of basis risk for providers.