Dr John Cherry wins 2020 Stockholm Water Prize

Dr John Cherry has been named the 2020 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate for discoveries that have revolutionised the world’s understanding of groundwater vulnerability. His research has raised awareness of how groundwater contamination is growing across the world and has led to new, more efficient methods to tackle the problem. 

Dr Cherry is a world-renowned hydrogeologist and a leading authority on the threats to groundwater from contamination. As the creator of the academic field contaminant hydrogeology, he has changed the scientific paradigms of groundwater research.

Contaminant hydrogeology studies how chemicals and waste leaches into the groundwater. A geological engineer by training, Dr Cherry has pioneered in-depth systematic approaches, including measurement tools and deep insights into groundwater transport processes. Through highly collaborative field experiments he has developed new ways to monitor, control and clean up contaminated groundwater.

“I’m very pleased to receive the Stockholm Water Prize and to get this opportunity to speak about the importance of protecting groundwater,” said Dr Cherry. “Though the global water crisis is starting to get more attention, groundwater is often forgotten, despite making up 99% of the planet’s liquid freshwater. Many people still perceive it as pristine when in fact it is threatened by human activity.”

Dr Cherry’s work has had enormous influence. Through the innovative Borden Groundwater Field Research Facility, which he established already in the 1980s, many important scientific discoveries have been made by researchers from different parts of the world. Dr Cherry’s approaches to groundwater monitoring have also been used in many countries, including Canada, Brazil and the United States.

Many students have had their understanding of groundwater shaped by the textbook Groundwater, which Dr Cherry co-authored together with R.A Freeze in 1979. Making groundwater knowledge available to students and practitioners around the world has always been close to his heart and most recently this has resulted in the innovative Groundwater Project. In response to recurring requests for him to update the textbook, Dr Cherry started collaborating with other leading groundwater scientists to make their texts available free of charge for anyone to use. The project will be launched in August 2020.

“We urgently need to raise awareness of the importance of groundwater,” he said. “It’s the essential water for our ecological world and sustains rivers, lakes, peatlands, wetlands, everything. For humans, groundwater is also becoming more and more important. Already today, almost half the global population is drinking groundwater. In coming years, when our planet will have an additional two or three billion inhabitants, most of them will rely on groundwater.”

Dr Cherry emphasises that groundwater is overused in many places and contaminated in others, for example from agriculture, the leaching of industrial solvents and fuels, as well as from energy production, such as shale fracking. But in other places, groundwater is underutilised as a source of safe drinking water. He hopes that the Stockholm Water Prize will help bring attention to the global water crisis and the threat to groundwater from both contamination and over-extraction.

“Groundwater should be monitored and valued, but all over the world, it is overlooked and abused,” he said. “The technology exists, but not a single country is doing enough to keep its groundwater safe. For the sake of future generations, we must start protecting our groundwater.”