Imperial College London

Will Veness

Faculty of EngineeringDepartment of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Research Postgraduate







Skempton BuildingSouth Kensington Campus





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

Title of Research: "Groundwater and Conflict in the Horn of Africa," with a focus on drought modelling in Somaliland using low-cost groundwater sensors and citizen science. 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 groundwater monitoring consistently practiced, there is little information for communities, governments or humanitarian agencies to anticipate accurately when these wells will run dry. This can lead 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 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 successfully tested in Gabiley, Somaliland. Will's project now aims to scale-up monitoring to a regional scale pilot, using Concern Worldwide’s country-wide community connections and our research group’s expertise in citizen science for water monitoring.

Local citizen involvement and communication will be essential for long-term operation of the monitoring system, and it can equally enable the return of useful information back to these communities, helping them manage their own water usage before humanitarian crisis onsets. The in-situ hydrological data from this research will be incorporated in to existing, weather-based drought models for the region, improving the spatial and temporal accuracy of drought warnings with this additional information. Together with a tested citizen science approach for its operation, this monitoring system can be proposed for scale-up with these stakeholders to improve water monitoring and drought forecasts across Somalia in the future.