The Macronutrients Cycles Programme is launched with multiple grants approved

The Macronutrient Cycles Programme – a £9.3 million programme of research directed by Professor Paul Whitehead at Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment – has finally approved a set of grants following an extensive peer review exercise undertaken by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The grants cover a wide range of research in macronutrients, as shown in the diagram below, and mark the start an exciting three years of integrated research of the cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon and their interactions in the environment.

The doubling of global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus has led to the degradation of soils, freshwaters and marine waters, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Increased carbon levels in the atmosphere have been linked to global climate change. Efforts to control nutrients to date have focused largely on a single nutrient without considering the interactions between macronutrient cycles. There is a danger that mitigating impacts of a single nutrient cycle could enhance the effects of another.

The NERC Macronutrients Cycles programme aims to address these gaps in macronutrient cycles science and policy-making, delivering integrated research on the complex dynamics and interactions of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon cycles at a catchment scale.

The programme brings together researchers in the freshwater, terrestrial, atmospheric and estuarine environments. A strong focus is to deliver information, models, new data and new synthesis to policymakers in Government and the Environment Agency. The project will also link to key EU research and policy programmes and international initiatives such as the Belmont Foundation programmes.

For a more information on the programme, visit the website or read the publication by Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Jill Crossman:

Whitehead, P.G. and Crossman, J (in press).  Macronutrient cycles and climate change: Key science areas and an international perspective. The Science of the Total Environment. 



Oxford University wins grant to explore links between poverty alleviation and ecosystem services in the Bay of Bengal Delta

Oxford University has won a project grant for £327K as part of a large Consortium Grant Project “Assessing health, livelihoods, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation in populous deltas” (ESPA Deltas),  focusing on the Bay of Bengal Delta region of Bangladesh.

Photo by Frances Voon

ESPA Deltas is an international, multi-disciplinary and multi-partner project which will examine the relationship between poverty alleviation and ecosystem services in deltaic environments, with particular focus on coastal Bangladesh. In the densely populated coastal fringe of the vast Ganges-Brahmaputra-Megha Delta poverty is widespread and rural livelihoods are closely linked with the natural ecosystems. Low-income farmers face multiple threats such as unreliable water supplies, increasing salinisation of soils and arsenic contamination of groundwater.

The overall goal of the project is to build an integrated analytical framework for deltaic systems that is applied in Bangladesh and transferable to other populous deltas. Elements considered will include morphodynamics, water quality and quantity, primary productivity and fisheries, agricultural production, mangroves and human health and well-being. The project is highly multidisciplinary and involves engineers, natural and social scientists, lawyers and policy analysts and a range of stakeholders.

ESPA Deltas is led by Professor Nicholls at the University of Southampton. Professor Paul Whitehead and Dr Fai Fung, from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment will be modelling the rivers upstream of the Delta – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna – to assess impacts of climate change, land use change, water diversions and dams on flows and nutrients arriving into Bangladesh from India and the Himalaya. Scenarios will be developed to assess future changes in ecosystem services and their links to poverty alleviation. These will be used to explore policy interventions for reducing poverty and increasing human well-being.

The project has been funded under the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

A Research Fellow position is available for the project, based at the University of Southampton. Further details here.


The business case for water investments: could multinationals find the cash?

Alex Money, in Environmental Finance

Might multinationals be persuaded to invest in water infrastructure in the growth markets of the future? It might make sense for them as well as for their potential customers, suggests Alex Money.

As a factor of production water is unique: essential, irreplaceable, without substitute and in limited supply. And, while unlike oil, copper, pork bellies or other traded commodities, there is no global clearing price for water, its value – from an economic, environmental, social or political perspective – is increasingly appreciated. But underinvestment risks water supply crises – identified for the first time this year as one of the top five risks by the World Economic Forum in its annual Global Risks report.

The business of water abstraction, treatment, storage and distribution requires large capital investments. In general terms, there is a greater per capita deficit of this infrastructure in the emerging markets than in the developed world. However, it is in these emerging markets that great economic potential lies. The dramatic expansion of mass consumer markets in the South provides burgeoning opportunities for globalised businesses that can combine sophisticated supply chain management with deep marketing budgets. And if the emerging markets were attractive before, then the 2007-8 financial crisis and its aftermath, which has pushed the locus of global growth further towards the South, has only amplified this trend.

Furthermore, the demographic dynamics of the industrialising South have dramatic implications for water scarcity and food security. For instance the population of Africa, which is currently a little over one billion, is expected to double in the next 35 years. Meanwhile, statistics from the UN suggest that urbanisation has increased from 30% in the 1950s to over 50% today, and is likely to be 60% by 2030. Over nine-tenths of this growth in urbanisation will occur in emerging countries. Coupled with the population expansion, this implies a dramatic increase in the strain on their urban water and sanitation infrastructure networks, which are in many cases already buckling.

In addition, the environmental risks of climate change certainly do not need to be rehearsed here, but it is worth pointing out that the resulting changing in patterns of precipitation – and likely increases in extreme weather events – places further strain on water infrastructure, particularly in terms of storage, which is typically one of the most capital-intensive components of the network.

“The globalised companies that are best positioned to benefit from emerging market consumption are also sufficiently capitalised to make the investments required in water infrastructure”

Meanwhile, economic growth and the emergence of mass consumption in the emerging markets present attractive opportunities for globalised businesses, especially when contrasted with the anaemic outlook for the post-industrial world. However, the water infrastructure networks in these emerging markets, which typically require years of substantial capital investment, are already under strain. Population growth and migration will only increase the pressure, while climate change presents a potent additional risk.

The obvious solution would be to expand water infrastructure in emerging markets, as the expected returns from this investment should be attractive, given the outlook. Indeed, a recent report for HSBC from Frontier Economics found that, on average, a $1 investment in promoting universal access to water returned just under $5 – and $16 in Latin America.

The problem, however, is that in the post-financial crisis world, there is a funding gap. Sovereign balance sheets are insufficiently capitalised to prioritise this investment, while risk aversion and uncertainty appears to impede private sector lending at the scale required.

However, embedded in this challenge is great opportunity. The globalised companies that are best positioned to benefit from emerging market consumption are also sufficiently capitalised to make the investments required in water infrastructure. The question is, what will induce them to do so?

The answer lies in the investments themselves, which can create value beyond their pure financial return, such as improving health outcomes for citizens, raising national productivity and so on. If national authorities recognise this ‘positive externality’ that their country could benefit from – which is often actually much easier to quantify than the value of water itself – and are willing to share this value with the investing company, for example by offering them fiscal incentives, this could catalyse investments that would not otherwise take place.

Companies could moreover justify their capital expenditures to shareholders not just from the direct benefit, but also from a shared value creation perspective. After all, the citizens whose quality of life they will undoubtedly help improve will likely be the customers of the future.

What is needed are two fresh perspectives. First, governments need to revisit environmental supply-side economics from a post-crisis viewpoint. Facilitating investment in supply through incentives and liberalisation may be more effective as a policy tool than demand management through control and regulation. Second, companies need to think about their water costs less in terms of the profit and loss, and more in terms of the balance sheet. A meeting of minds is then surely possible. EF

Alex Money is a researcher in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, with a focus on corporate water risk.

The University of Oxford will be hosting the Re¦Source 2012 event in Oxford on 12-13 July, a forum to bring together policy-makers, business people and investors to address natural resources issues. See


Thames Water Sponsored DPhil Studentship 2012-2015

Reduction of algal loading onto water treatment works

A three-year funded DPhil studentship is available from October 2012, in the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford.

We are seeking a highly-motivated researcher for this exciting opportunity to develop research expertise in the design and operation of novel, biological pre-filters for potable water treatment works. Such skills are in great demand within the water industry, in universities and in consultancy companies. The ideal candidate will hold an undergraduate degree in a biological science such as zoology or botany, or an applied engineering or environmental science. The candidate must possess good communication and inter-personal skills, be numerate, and should have experience of, or enthusiasm for, engaging with industry on problems of an intellectually demanding and highly practical nature.

Thames Water have identified peaks in chemical demand associated with algal blooms as a current cause of seasonal increases in the costs of potable water treatment; a goal has been set to minimise the impact of algal blooms and thus reduce treatment costs at Farmoor stage 2 reservoir in Oxfordshire. It is proposed to install a combined physical and biological barrier, consisting of a combination of submerged booms and floating reed beds, in order to reduce the algal biomass exiting into the treatment process. The project will investigate and evaluate how well the installation meets its goals over a three year period via an intensive field- and lab-based protocol; this would involve quantifying and monitoring the ecology of the reed-bed installation and associated booms and filters, measuring their effects on hydrochemical flow pathways, monitoring the impact of the installation on algal populations, and quantifying the impact on the downstream water-works operation and wash water treatment and disposal. The ultimate goal would be the development of a successful final design for installation on other suitable reservoirs.

The student would be integrated into the Thames Water organization at Farmoor, with smaller scale lab-based work being executed at Oxford University Begbroke Science Park and at the Thames Water Innovation Centre, Kempton Park. She/he would be supervised jointly by academic staff at Oxford University and by staff at Thames Water.

The studentship covers university fees at the UK/EU student level, College fees, and a tax-free stipend for three years: £14,400 in the first year, with annual increments. It is available to all applicants, but non-UK/EU students would need to provide the difference in university fees. The deadline for applications is July 24, 2012. Interviews will take place during the week commencing the 6th of August. Applicants should send a CV, a covering letter explaining what they can bring to this challenging project, and reference letters from two academic referees to: Dr Nick Hankins, Department of Engineering Science, The University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PJ (to whom informal enquiries may be addressed).

Applicants should hold a full, clean driving licence. The successful candidate would be expected to work over deep water, and gain the necessary boat handling qualifications.

Mobile technology to fix hand pumps in Africa

Thousands of families affected by the ongoing drought in East Africa are set to benefit from improved water supplies thanks to innovative mobile technology designed by Oxford University.

Hand pumps provide the main source of drinking water for rural communities in Africa, but around one-third of them do not work at any one time. It can take up to a month or more before they are fixed, leaving communities without easy access to clean water. But in August Oxford University researchers will start a pilot project in Kenya to install new, low-cost data transmitters that work in a similar way to mobile phones.

These Smart Hand Pumps will automatically send a text message to the district and national water managers, so they know when and where there is a problem, as well as when the problem has been fixed.

Researcher Patrick Thomson said: ‘The technology is simple and robust. The transmitter is no bigger than a mobile phone and fits inside the hand pump. It automatically registers the movement of the handle of the pump and from this calculates the amount of water extracted from the pump. An automatic text about the water usage at each pump is sent at regular intervals to water supply managers, who then immediately know when and where a pump needs fixing. This should enable problems to be addressed more quickly and transparently than they are at the moment, so people don’t have to go without safe water – with all the resulting health problems that can cause.’

Lead researcher Dr Rob Hope, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford’s School for Geography and the Environment, said: ‘Reliable water supplies lead to healthier people and more productive livelihoods. We hope that by applying mobile communications technologies within the rural water sector, we can improve water security and reduce poverty for the 276 million people in rural Africa who currently don’t have safe and reliable water supplies.’

The researchers will start to install the technology in 70 village hand pumps across the Kyuso District of Kenya, in a pilot trial funded by the UK Department of International Development. Kyuso commonly experiences droughts and will be the first place in the world to use the new Smart Hand Pumps, a mobile technology that should improve the functionality of its hand pumps.

Lack of reliable access to clean water is an enduring problem in rural Africa. Yet mobile technology in Africa is booming: the number of people within range of a mobile signal has already overtaken the number with an improved water supply and, this year, the number of people with a mobile subscription will pass the same benchmark.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, whose department is funding the pilot project in Kenya, said: ‘This is a fantastic example of British innovation helping some of the poorest people in the world.

‘Water does not just save lives in the short term – it is also a cornerstone for delivering economic growth and helping countries to work their way out of poverty. This is why UK aid will give an additional 15 million people access to clean water by 2015 and supporting a number of programmes, like this one, to help the world’s poorest countries harness the full potential of their water resources.’

A research paper about the technology used in the pilot project is publicly available in the Journal of Hydroinformatics.

The research team will gather data on the advantages and disadvantages of the Smart Hand Pumps so they can refine the technology as and when needed. Following the trial in Kenya, they plan to roll out a national trial in Zambia, which will be funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Read further coverage about this research on the BBC News website.