PhD on the Economic Limits to Global Groundwater Use (1.0 FTE)

PhD on the Economic Limits to Global Groundwater Use (1.0 FTE)

Published Deadline Location
13 May 15 Jun Utrecht

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Utrecht University is looking for a PhD candidate on the Economic Limits to Global Groundwater Use. Interested? Please read the full profil and apply.

Job description

What will you be doing?
In many areas of the world, groundwater is overexploited, leading to the depletion of groundwater volumes in aquifers and the necessity to pump groundwater from ever increasing depths. This, in turn, leads to higher extraction costs up to the point that groundwater use becomes uneconomic.

As a PhD you will elaborate on methodologies to analyze the costs and benefits of groundwater (extraction), taking into account climate change and socioeconomic scenarios. This methodology needs to be applicable for all regions in the world and will be used in the global assessment of the maximum economic groundwater depth. To do this, you will combine insights and models from economics with a state-of-the-art high resolution, physically-based global hydrological model including the linkage between surface water-groundwater. You will start with the assessment of the maximum economic limit (depth) of groundwater extraction under current water use and under future climate and socioeconomic scenarios. This analysis will result in global maps of the depth and time to economic depletion, the economically extractable volume, and its economic value. Additionally, you will look at the impacts on crop yield (food security) and include externalities such as the detrimental impacts on groundwater dependent ecosystems.

For a number of hotspot regions, you will perform further in-depth analyses that consider the potential of user-driven and policy-driven economic strategies to prevent or revert groundwater decline and safeguard crop yield, economic rate of return and ecosystem status in the future. These results will elucidate trade-offs between economic viability (e.g., income), ecological sustainability, and food security. You will collaborate closely with two postdocs who are responsible for advancing the global hydrological model, and with two PhDs, who will assess the physical and ecological limits to groundwater use.


Utrecht University


What are we looking for?
As part of the ERC Advanced Grant project GEOWAT, we are looking for an enthusiastic PhD candidate who is interested in applying economic theories and models to globally assess the economic limits to groundwater use. You have an interest in global water and sustainability challenges and are enthusiastic about working with global large datasets and models. You are a team player and will be part of a multidisciplinary team of two postdocs, three PhD students, and scientific and technical support staff. Together with the team, you will work on assessing the global volumes of fresh groundwater that are physically and economically attainable for human water use and investigate how these volumes can be extracted in a sustainable manner. Your focus will be to quantify the economically attainable volumes of groundwater under climate and socio-economic change.

We are looking for a candidate with:
  • a MSc degree in economics, hydroeconomics, resource economics, environmental economics, agricultural economics, econometrics or a related field;
  • demonstrable enthusiasm for working with large datasets and large-domain economic models in the context of global change;
  • familiarity with environmental aspects related to the exploitation of natural resources, preferably those concerning water, or willing to acquire and deepen this knowledge;
  • well familiar with a scripting or programming language (e.g., Python, R, Fortran, C++);
  • the willingness to work in multi-disciplinary teams;
  • English oral and writing skills; you should be able to demonstrate English language proficiency. We require a qualification English at C1 level (comparable to level 3 of the Lecturer Assessment Grid) or you should be willing to obtain this level by training;
  • the willingness to start 1 September 2022.

PhD candidates at Utrecht University are expected to follow courses as part of their own academic development and to assist in teaching courses at Bachelor's and Master's level at our faculty. Both activities amount to approximately 10% of the contracted time.

Conditions of employment

You will be offered a temporary position (1.0 FTE), initially for one year with an extension to a total of four years upon a successful assessment in the first year, and with the specific intent that it results in a doctorate within this period. The gross salary ranges between €2,443 in the first year and €3,122 in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities) per month for a full-time employment. Salaries are supplemented with a holiday bonus of 8% and a year-end bonus of 8.3% per year. In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, (partly paid) parental leave and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information: working at Utrecht University.


A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major societal themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability.

Utrecht University's Faculty of Geosciences studies the Earth: from the Earth's core to its surface, including man's spatial and material utilisation of the Earth - always with a focus on sustainability and innovation. With 3,400 students (BSc and MSc) and 720 staff, the faculty is a strong and challenging organisation. The Faculty of Geosciences is organised in four Departments: Earth Sciences, Human Geography & Spatial Planning, Physical Geography, and Sustainable Development.

The Department of Physical Geography excels in research and education on BSc, MSc and PhD level. Our research focuses on processes, patterns and dynamics of the Earth’s continental and coastal systems, and on the interaction between these processes. This knowledge is essential for the sustainable management of our planet and to guarantee the availability of resources for the next generations. 

About the GEOWAT project
The ERC AdG project GEOWAT stands for 'The Global Assessment of the Limits of Groundwater Use'. It is a €2.5 million 5-year research project, funded by the European Research Council under the Advanced Grant scheme. 

Summary: Population growth and economic development have dramatically increased the demand for food and water. The resulting expansion of agriculture into areas with limited precipitation and surface water has greatly increased the reliance on groundwater irrigation. Furthermore, urban groundwater use has risen exponentially to meet the ever-increasing population growth of mega-cities. These trends have resulted in a dramatic rise in groundwater pumping and associated high rates of aquifer depletion around the globe. The depletion of our world’s aquifers is unsustainable and will eventually impact the food security of future generations. Also, groundwater depletion results in severe environmental impacts such as land subsidence, groundwater salinisation, and damage to groundwater-dependent ecosystems. Despite decades of research on groundwater overuse, knowledge on attainable groundwater reserves and the critical time horizons of their depletion is completely lacking.

GEOWAT takes the giant leap to extractable volumes and depletion horizons by answering the obvious question that has been avoided thus far: How much groundwater is there and how long will it last? To this end, GEOWAT will build the first high-resolution global groundwater model, supported with a 3D-mapping of the world’s aquifers. GEOWAT will use these unique modelling tools, in combination with dedicated case studies, to assess, for the first time, the global volume of physically and economically extractable fresh groundwater, and determine the time to physical and economic depletion under future pumping. It will also provide the first global assessment of the effects of groundwater pumping on groundwater-dependent ecosystems and explore pathways to sustainable groundwater use. As such, GEOWAT will provide critically-needed new knowledge to address one of the most pressing challenges that mankind will face: how to sustainably manage the freshwater resources needed to survive on this planet.

Research design: GEOWAT is organised into six inter-related work packages (WPs) executed by six scientists (including the PI), a research assistant and one model engineer. The backbone of the research approach (WP1 – This Postdoc 1) is the creation of a high-resolution 30 arc-second (~1 km) physically-based, global-scale surface water - groundwater model (GLAM). To support this model, we will develop a 30 arc-second hydrogeological schematisation (HYGS) of the world’s aquifers that consists of aquifer and aquitard thicknesses and their hydraulic properties. The HYGS will use a novel combination of new and existing global datasets, machine learning and data-assimilation (WP2 – Postdoc 2). The GLAM and HYGS will then be used to address the key scientific objectives:
  • to estimate past, current, and future volumes of fresh groundwater globally (physical limits, WP4; PhD 1);
  • to assess the volume of groundwater that can be extracted, including costs and benefits and assess pathways to sustainable use (economic limits, WP5; PhD 2);
  • and to assess how extraction strategies impact the extent and biodiversity of groundwater-dependent ecosystems (ecological limits, WP6; PhD3).

The results of all WPs will be synthesized into one multi-faceted assessment of the limits of groundwater use. To assess the accuracy of these results, we will use a three-pillar strategy: 
  1. global analyses will be grounded on regional case studies in four depletion hotspots (WP3);
  2. results will be evaluated against hydrogeological datasets, including regional groundwater models;
  3. uncertainty assessment will be integral to our approach, including all relevant sources of uncertainty.


  • PhD
  • Natural sciences
  • 36—40 hours per week
  • €2443—€3122 per month
  • University graduate
  • 1189933



Heidelberglaan 8, 3584CS, Utrecht

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