FACES: Tokyo Tech Researchers, Issue 43
School of Environment and Society, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Environmental problems such as global warming, plastic pollution, and ecosystem degradation are widespread and increasingly complex. Many of these problems are related to water.
Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are international goals for achieving a better and more sustainable world by 2030, there are goals to "Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all" and "Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development." Recently, efforts to improve water usage and the aquatic environment are gaining momentum worldwide.
Under these circumstances, Professor Chihiro Yoshimura (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, School of Environment and Society) has been researching the aquatic environment for many years, with a focus on rivers and lakes.
"From early on, I wanted to contribute to a field that directly relates to people's lives; for example, social infrastructure," explains Yoshimura. "With that in mind, I chose the Department of Civil Engineering at Tokyo Tech and joined a laboratory for environmental water quality engineering focusing on aquatic environments such as rivers and lakes. I have been working on this research theme ever since."
An aquatic environment includes not only rivers and lakes, but also the activities of people living in the surrounding areas, and the ecosystems affected by those activities. Yoshimura's research involves assessing such aquatic ecosystems from the viewpoint of water safety and the living environment. Based on those assessments, he considers how to create sustainable relationships between regional communities and nature.
Yoshimura is currently focusing on three areas: "environmental photochemistry," "development of water quality models," and "evaluation of ecosystem functions."
The first area, environmental photochemistry, deals with photochemical reactions in the natural environment. As the name suggests, photochemical reactions are reactions caused by light energy. Yoshimura is exploring the photochemical reactions that occur in aquatic environments and their engineering applications.
Organic compounds such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals flow into rivers through various types of wastewater and sewage. Many of these substances exhibit endocrine disruption and ecotoxicity in aquatic ecosystems, while others are degraded by photochemical reactions. The photosynthesis of phytoplankton, algae, etc., is well known as a photochemical reaction. However, photochemical reactions that do not involve living organisms are actually always occurring in water exposed to light. Together with biodegradation by microorganisms, such photodegradation is recognized as a self-cleaning action of the environment.
Furthermore, in recent years, marine pollution has been occurring in the form of microplastics. We know that these plastics are also degraded in the environment mainly by the two actions of photodegradation and biodegradation. In this way, photochemical reactions are important reactions in aquatic environments. Understanding the processes of photochemical reactions in organisms and substances will enable us to better manage chemical substances, aquatic environments, and ecosystems.
However, not much progress has been made in understanding photochemical reactions in aquatic environments. This is one of the reasons why the management and regulation of pollutants are inadequate. Therefore, by researching environmental photochemistry, Yoshimura hopes to propose effective management methods for aquatic environments. He also aims to realize new water treatment technologies by applying photochemical reactions in aquatic environments.
In the laboratory, Yoshimura acquires data through the organic combination of modeling based on surveys of rivers and lakes in Japan and overseas, and on experiments related to environmental photochemistry. In water treatment using photocatalysts, if technology can be developed that synergizes with the photochemical reactions in water, it would be possible to secure safe water even in areas where electricity is not available, as long as there is sunlight. This technology could be used in regions such as developing countries and mountainous areas.
Yoshimura's second area of focus is development of a water quality model. This is an effort to use a numerical model to describe the aquatic environment. Yoshimura constructed a water quality model for lake water. For example, if a pollutant flows into a lake, it is possible to use a simulation to predict how the pollutant will diffuse over time, and how the biomass of organisms in the water will change. It is also possible to visualize the space-time distribution of these concentrations. Incidentally, Yoshimura is currently focusing on lakes because chemical and biological reactions are more likely to occur in lake water than in rivers.
One result of this research was an international project that targeted Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia and was led by Yoshimura from April 2016 to March 2022 (JST/JICA-SATREPS).
Lake Tonle Sap is located in the central region of Cambodia. It boasts the largest area of any lake in Southeast Asia, with a total length of about 100 kilometers. Local people use Lake Tonle Sap and its floodplain for farming and fishing. The vast flood plains that are temporarily submerged in water also play an important role in maintaining biodiversity in the Mekong Basin. However, over the past decade or so, development has progresse in the basin, and environmental pollution of the lake has become a growing concern.
On how the project started, Yoshimura explains, "When I first visited Tonle Sap Lake in 2016, there were concerns about how the lake was being impacted by the construction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant upstream on the river. At that time, the lake was a rich and valuable ecosystem, and I felt that it was worthy of being registered as a natural heritage site. I thought it would be very meaningful to scientifically clarify the characteristics of the lake for having it designated as a world natural heritage site and ensuring conservation. Therefore, I started collaborative research with a researcher from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia."
"Eutrophication2 had become a problem at that time, and it created the issue of excess organisms and organic matter. This makes it difficult to use the lake water as tap water and agricultural water. Furthermore, if oxygen deficiency occurs as a result of eutrophication, the fish population will drop significantly. It was therefore necessary to ascertain the movement in levels of nutrient sources such as phosphoric acid."
In this project, Yoshimura collaborated with laboratories inside and outside of Tokyo Tech to construct a water quality model for the movement of water and various substances that flow from rivers into lakes, thereby enabling replication through simulations.
A water quality model constructed in this way enables various simulations simply by changing the parameters. For example, because it is possible to predict changes in the aquatic environment of lakes as global warming progresses, Yoshimura plans to apply this water quality model to other lakes, including those in Japan.
"Currently, management of aquatic environments in Japan is based on environmental monitoring, which usually examines water quality and species," explains Yoshimura. "Environmental monitoring is an important task for clarifying the impact of environmental changes on ecosystems. However, countermeasures inevitably fall one step behind. By using simulations to predict future impact, we can implement effective measures in advance instead of trying to improve things after they have deteriorated."
For example, there are about 3,000 dammed lakes in Japan. Presently, water quality management is based on environmental monitoring. However, in the future, applying water quality models will enable more rational environmental management. Therefore, Yoshimura is currently working on a project running from April 2021 to March 2023 in collaboration with the Water Resources Environment Center (WEC). The project aims to understand photochemical reactions on the water surface of dammed lakes and to model the decomposition of organic pollutants. This project also comprises the generation of blue-green algae3 and the photodecomposition reaction of organic matter, particularly in dammed lakes.
"Until now, dam managers have engaged in trial-and-error for measures to prevent blooming of blue-green algae," explains Yoshimura. "In the future, I would like to formulate efficient countermeasures by conducting simulations using water quality models. In addition to being desirable in terms of various types of water usage, suppressing the growth of blue-green algae will also lead to conservation of dammed lake ecosystems."
The international project targeting Lake Tonle Sap ended in March 2022. Currently an organization established at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia is responsible for conservation and management of Lake Tonle Sap. "In environmental conservation research, it is also important for local people to take ownership of conservation and management of the natural environment. This will make it possible to achieve sustainability," explains Yoshimura. Therefore, the project also focused on providing training to the local community. I have high expectations for their research results and environmental conservation efforts, and I will certainly keep an eye on their future activities."
Yoshimura's third area of focus is the evaluation of ecosystem functions. He states, "Of course, preventing pollution is extremely important; however, as a further step, I would like to achieve environmental management that can better utilize the functions of the ecosystem. This means considering environmental management methods that increase the benefits to society while maintaining the ecosystem. For example, making it possible to have high-quality fishery resources while still maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Therefore, by making full use of an aquatic environment model that incorporates ecosystem functions, we are tackling the issue of what kind of environmental management can enhance ecosystem services."
Ecosystem services are the benefits that human society receives from ecosystems. This concept has attracted attention in recent years. Ecosystem services contain everything that society depends on from the natural world, such as water and fish. For example, by adding a parameter that describes the growth of fish to the water quality model, it is possible to determine the extent to which a particular method of farming in the river watershed will ultimately change fishery production. Another example would be determining the approximate amount of water usage in an upstream dammed lake that would make it impossible to maintain the fishery production amount.
Furthermore, if it is possible to use simulations to visualize the benefits of the aquatic environment for residents living nearby and to predict future effects quantitatively, we will be able to optimize use of the aquatic environment for society. In recent years, this concept has been expressed as "green infrastructure" or "nature-based solutions (NbS)." These ways of thinking emphasize utilizing the mechanisms of nature and ecosystems in society. Such efforts will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and lead to the achievement of a sustainable society. "The aquatic environment is part of nature, so I would like to contribute to society by developing tools for the aquatic environment," says Yoshimura. "Ultimately, I hope that this will lead to achieving SDGs."
Yoshimura describes the joy of conducting his research as follows: "I studied abroad at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) in Switzerland for one year during my second year in the doctoral program. Eawag is a national research institute specializing in water and environment. My experience at Eawag was the first time that I belonged to an ecology laboratory and learned how interesting ecology truly is. My background is in engineering, but being exposed to research fields in the sciences greatly broadened my horizons. In fact, the aquatic environment is an interdisciplinary field that involves both engineering and science. I felt that one of the main appeals of my research is the ability to learn from both disciplines."
As initiatives for SDGs are currently gaining momentum worldwide, Yoshimura's research is attracting even greater attention. "From among the 17 SDGs, my research is deeply related to Goal 6 'Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,' Goal 14 'Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development,' and Goal 15 'Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.' That being said, the SDGs have not changed my research. All the SDGs are important social issues that should have been resolved even before being defined as SDGs. I will continue to conduct research on the aquatic environment with the aim of achieving a sustainable society."
In closing, Yoshimura gave the following message to young people aiming to become researchers. "Personally, studying abroad in Switzerland was an invaluable experience. Therefore, rather than staying at the same university from undergraduate to graduate school, I recommend that you actively change your environment and take on new challenges, such as studying abroad, moving to another university, or finding employment. Also, beginning from their time in school, I hope that students will earnestly pursue their own interests and confront their problem awareness without being influenced by the thoughts of people around them. Taking such an attitude will broaden your horizons and enrich your life."
Highly-reactive atoms and molecules containing unpaired electrons. Includes reactive oxygen species.
A natural phenomenon in which closed bodies of water such as lakes and dammed reservoirs change from oligotrophic to eutrophic with a high concentration of nutrients. This change is caused by the supply of nutrients such as nitrogen compounds and phosphoric acid from the watershed.
A state in which microalgae grow in large numbers near the water surface in lakes and marshes where eutrophication is progressing. This phenomenon makes the water surface a blue-green color.
Professor Chihiro Yoshimura
School of Environment and Society, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
School of Environment and Society
—Adapting Environments to Shifting Attitudes—
Information on School of Environment and Society inaugurated in April 2016
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Published: September 2022