Engineering a more sustainable world

Research and innovation
Faculty of Engineering

By Michelle Hibler

Writer, Freelance

Ousmane Seidou
Photo: Peter Thornton
Ousmane Seidou’s hydrological research aims to protect water resources and mitigate the effects of climate change on food security—here and in Africa.

"People are afraid of climate change, but the consequences of altering the landscape are worse."

– Ousmane Seidou

One of the first things Ousmane Seidou will tell you about the scope of green technologies is that they encompass “everything that can lead to the sustainable management of natural resources.” That means, for example, controlling pollution, effectively managing our rivers and using our lands sustainably.

“Rainwater collection is sustainable management because you can then grow crops in dry conditions,” explains the University of Ottawa professor of engineering. “Hydrology includes managing dams for hydroelectricity—that’s green electricity. It’s about how to maximize productivity without destroying ecosystems.”

Water is the focus of Seidou’s research. “What interests me is water circulation everywhere,” he says. His objective: to use water to meet our needs, like drinking, irrigation and hydroelectricity. But “because nature is more powerful,” he says, “we usually can’t control water flows. So it’s up to us to adapt.”

Seidou has been working on that adaptation in Canada and in Africa—notably in his home country of Niger—for nearly 20 years, the past 10 at the University of Ottawa. His research seeks to find ways to better manage water resources and ensure food security in the face of climate variability. His innovative work earned him the 2016 G.S. Glinski Award for Excellence in Research from the Faculty of Engineering.

In Canada, Seidou has been working with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on controlling river pollution. “A lot of pesticides and fertilizers—notably nitrogen and phosphorous—are used in fields,” he says, “and they always end up in a nearby river.” The focus of much of this work has been Eastern Ontario’s South Nation River, which flows into the Ottawa River and, in turn, into the St. Lawrence. The study aims to estimate current and future impacts of climate and land use changes, such as deforestation and urbanization, on water quality and flows in the river’s watershed. “I have been developing models to predict what will happen if we don’t do anything and how we can improve the way we carry out agriculture and manage water.”

In 2015, Seidou published findings that showed that land use changes can affect water quality as much as climate change. Failure to account for those changes could lead to inaccurate assessment of the causes of water pollution and improper strategies to reduce it. “People are afraid of climate change,” he says, “but the consequences of altering the landscape are worse.”

The situation is more serious in West Africa, where widespread land clearance is exacerbating climate change impacts such as rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns and extreme weather events. With funding from the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, Seidou and colleagues at the Agrhymet Regional Centre in Niger set out to develop a technique to ensure stable production of pearl millet, the region’s staple food crop.

Using the public-domain Soils and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), they found that water distribution posed greater threats than quantity. The solutions they proposed to counter late-starting, early-ending rainy seasons were to create small reservoirs in fields to capture rainwater used to irrigate during dry spells. To give crops a head start, they created easy-to-irrigate nurseries, then transplanted three-week-old seedlings at the start of the rainy season. Yields in test plots were 20- to 40-percent higher than in farmers’ fields, depending on the millet variety used.

More recently, Seidou has worked with Université de Sherbrooke and Agrhymet to develop a tool to forecast flooding risks in Niger’s capital, Niamey, which experiences frequent devastating floods. “The biggest challenge is to measure flows,” says Seidou. “The technology doesn’t exist in Niger.”

With a grant from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the team installed four automated gauging stations at strategic points along the Niger River’s main channel and two tributaries. A SWAT model enables them to convert satellite data into rainfall estimates for the past seven and next six days, then to convert those predictions and river measurements into flow rates in Niamey. “I can now see on my computer what’s happening hour by hour,” says Seidou. Daily information and forecasts are posted on a website. “To our knowledge, this is the only Internet portal disseminating data on flooding risks in West Africa,” he says. The team expects the warning system to be fully operational by the end of 2017.

Seidou’s goal for his research projects is “to be really useful. That’s why I work in Africa,” he says. “I’d like to see one day that, because of the technologies I am working on, agricultural production no longer fluctuates, that they are able to predict floods. For me, that would be real success.”