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How can we improve understanding of faecal indicator dynamics in karst systems under changing climatic, population, and land use stressors? – Research opportunities in SW China

Buckerfield, Sarah J., Waldron, Susan, Quilliam, Richard S., Naylor, Larissa A., Li, Siliang, Oliver, David M.
The Science of the total environment 2019 v.646 pp. 438-447
aquifers, climate change, feces, groundwater, hydrologic models, indicator species, karsts, land use, landscapes, paddies, poverty, risk, risk assessment, surveys, water pollution, water quality, water supply, watersheds, China
Human exposure to water contaminated with faeces is a leading cause of worldwide ill-health. Contaminated water can be transmitted rapidly in karst terrain as a result of the connectivity of surface and groundwater systems, high transmissivity of aquifers over large areas, and well-developed underground conduit systems. Faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) are the most widely-used indicator of faecal contamination and microbial water quality; however, the conceptualisation of FIO risk and associated sources, pathways, and survival dynamics of FIOs in karst landscapes requires a degree of modification from traditional conceptual models of FIO fate and transfer in non-karst systems. While a number of reviews have provided detailed accounts of the state-of-the-science concerning FIO dynamics in catchments, specific reference to the uniqueness of karst and its influence on FIO fate and transfer is a common omission. In response, we use a mixed methods approach of critical review combined with a quantitative survey of 372 residents of a typical karst catchment in the southwest China karst region (SWCKR) to identify emerging research needs in an area where much of the population lives in poverty and is groundwater dependent. We found that the key research needs are to understand: 1) overland and subsurface FIO export pathways in karst hydrology under varying flow conditions; 2) urban and agricultural sources and loading in mixed land-use paddy farming catchments; 3) FIO survival in paddy farming systems and environmental matrices in karst terrain; 4) sediment-FIO interactions and legacy risk in karst terrain; and 5) key needs for improved hydrological modelling and risk assessment in karst landscapes. Improved knowledge of these research themes will enable the development of evidence-based faecal contamination mitigation strategies for managing land and water resources in the SWCKR, which is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts on water supply and quality of water resources.